First published – April 15, 2020
Bruce Swedien has been the recording engineer extraordinaire for over four decades. He was the sound mastermind behind Michael Jackson’s signature sound. His career has impacted Jazz, Pop, Blues, R&B and Soul.
Bruce was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1934 to Scandinavian parents. His mother was a member of the Minneapolis Symphony Women’s chorus, which had a strong influence on his choice of career in the music industry. His passion for music developed, as he listened to the powerful and soulful sounds coming out of a black church in the neighbourhood where he grew up. By the time he graduated from high school, Swedien had purchased a professional tape recorder and used the equipment during his spare time from the the University of Minnesota to record jazz groups, radio commercials and vocal groups such as choirs. He was mentored and trained by the father of modern recording Bill Putnam, the founder of the world famous Universal Recording Studios in Chicago, where Bruce developed his engineering skills to great effect and made himself a key figure in the evolution of sound recording from mono to digital recordings.
Putnam passed the baton during actual recording sessions with the great Stan Kenton. With his new-found success, Bruce’s client base increased to significant levels and included working with two jazz legends, the late Duke Ellington on a couple of albums and Count Basie and his band, which featured Joe Williams, on “The Nighttime Is the Right Time”. During this period Bruce started a long-term creative relationship with Quincy Jones, beginning in the late 1950s when Quincy was vice-president at Mercury Records, the first black man to be a top executive for a major label.
As a result of his links with Quincy Jones, Bruce participated in engineering projects with jazz greats such as Sarah Vaughan and Oscar Peterson on the Mercury/Verve label based in Chicago. His first significant project with Quincy was Dinah Washington’s “What a Different a Day Makes”, using the latest technology available at the time. He also recorded standards with Nat Cole King and Patti Page, under the supervision of Putnam before he went solo as an engineer. Bruce became a key player in the development of the Blues sound which arrived in Chicago from the Mississippi Delta, brought by Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed and others.
Bruce was also involved in the recording process of many classic soul recordings that emerged from Chicago when that particular genre began to explode on the local and international stage. He had a keen understanding of how soul music should be expressed in terms of sound. One of his early recording sessions behind the board was with a young up-and-coming soul genius by the name of Curtis Mayfield, one of the key architects of the Chicago Soul Sound. At these sessions were key individuals such as the legendary arranger and producer Johnny Pate, who was responsible for the majority of Curtis Mayfield’s classic hit records over a fifteen year period and played a significant part in the success of Major Lance, whose second Okeh Records recording, “The Monkey Time”, sold over one million copies. It was written and produced by Mayfield and engineered by Swedien.
Swedien’s first major success was engineering Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons’ gold record “Big Girls Don’t Cry” on VeeJay Records, which stayed at number one R&B for three weeks and number one Pop for five weeks in 1962.
When Bruce was sound engineering recording projects for VeeJay Records at Universal Recording Studios, Calvin Carter was the label’s A&R man and principal producer. Although Calvin was the main producer at the label, he conducted each recording session with a collective approach, involving arrangers, background singers and studio musicians, to obtain the best results. With the support of Bruce and fellow colleagues, Calvin developed a tremendous feeling for outstanding vocal harmonies and how to achieve the sounds he wanted. The band worked with him to get the best sound, with particular input from Lefty Bates on guitar and Red Holloway, as designated tenor saxophonist and joint arranger.
Bruce also collaborated with another person who gave creative support to Calvin in the early years. This was Al Smith, the leader of the house band at VeeJay from 1954 to 1959. Al was responsible for rehearsing and preparing VeeJay acts for recording sessions; on many occasions he held rehearsals at his home. Under the leadership of bassist Al Smith, a powerful and dynamic studio band was established in 1954 which created many of the early hits, such as “At My Front Door” by The El Dorados, released in 1955, which made it to R&B number 2. This single became the first entry into the national Pop charts for the label. The rhythm section usually had a main core consisting of veteran Chicago musician Quinn B. Wilson (bass), William “Lefty”Bates (guitar), with Paul Gusman, Vernel Fournier, and Alrock “Al” Duncan sharing drum duties. The piano parts were mainly handled by Horace Palm and Norman Simmons, with James “Red” Holloway playing the tenor saxophone and McKinley “Mac” Easton on baritone saxophone. Al and his musicians participated on approximately one fifth of the recordings released by VeeJay from 1954 to 1959. The recordings were always conducted at the Universal Studios on Chicago North Side. The studio band did between three and six sessions in a day. Al Smith and his band were so excellent that several other local labels hired them to improve the quality of their recordings, including labels such as Chance, Parrot and United/States. These are now-defunct labels that once operated in Chicago during the 1950s.
Bruce Swedien was the main recording engineer on most of the singles and albums released by Brunswick Records. With the talents of Bruce Swedien as engineer and Carl Davis as producer, with arrangers and producers Willie Henderson, Sonny Sanders and Tom Tom Washington, Brunswick Records sold millions of records between the late nineteen sixties and the early nineteen seventies.
In the late ’60s, Swedien became a freelance recording engineer so that he could do more album projects and work on film soundtracks. It was in this way that he began working for producer Carl Davis, head of the Chicago branch of New York-based Brunswick Records. While there he engineered hits by The Lost Generation (“Sly, Slick & the Wicked,” a number 14 R&B hit in the summer of 1970, which features some startling pre-sampling effects), The Chi-Lites (“Have You Seen Her”, number one R&B for two weeks, number three pop, late 1971; “Oh Girl,” number one R&B for two weeks, number one pop, summer 1972; “A Letter to Myself,” number three R&B, early 1973; “Stoned out of Mind,” number two R&B, summer 1973), Jackie Wilson, Barbara Acklin and other Brunswick acts.
“Bruce has bridged the old and new generations of recording artists with a wealth of knowledge and experience from the 1950s into the 21st century and is also known as the godfather of the recording industry, working with Nat King Cole during the late 1950s and early 1960s. By the following decade he was working with the legend’s daughter Natalie Cole on her gold and platinum recordings”.
He was involved in the recording and mixing of many of Quincy Jones’ multi-platinum and multi-grammy-award-winning projects, such as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1982), ”Bad” (1987) and ”Dangerous” (1991). He also engineered for Natalie Cole, Donna Summer, in particular on the album “Donna Summer”, featuring “Love in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” in 1982, and finally George Benson (“Give Me the Night” 1980). Quincy’s Qwest Records roster of artist included Patti Austin, whose album “Every Home Should Have One” featured the single “Baby, Come to Me”, a USA number one on the Billboard Pop chart listings for two weeks, 19th February to 26th February 1983 with James Ingram on duet. The album achieved gold certification from the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) on 1st March 1983. Bruce sound-engineered two gold certified album projects for James Ingram entitled “It’s Your Night” (1983) and “Greatest Hits – The Power of Great Music” (1991). James also received a Grammy award for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male at the 1984 – 24th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony for the song “One Hundred Ways” and Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal with Michael McDonald at the 1984 – 27th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony for the song “Yah Mo B There”. Both songs were engineered of course by Swedien.
Since the turn of the new century he has worked on several multi-platinum recording projects, in particular Michael Jackson’s “Invincible” album in his capacity as sound engineer. This album has sold an estimated 8 million copies worldwide, having been originally released in October 2001 and achieving number one on both the UK and USA Pop album charts. As the century progresses, he continues to work with many diverse artists, including pop diva Jennifer Lopez on two of her recent studio albums. The first, released in 2003, was “This Is Me….Then”, certified multi-platinum for 2 million copies sold in the USA and then “Rebirth”, released in 2005, which achieved platinum levels for 1.6 million copies sold in the USA according to Nielsen SoundScan.
“Many of the artists that Bruce has worked with were not born when he started his career as a sound engineer during the early to mid 1950s.”