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Al Schmitt's Son Chris Reflects on the Remarkable Life of His 'Daddy-O' (Guest Column)

Courtesy of Chris Schmitt

Al and Chris in Switzerland

In the past couple weeks, I’ve heard my dad called an icon, a legend, a mentor, even G.O.A.T. I’ve even seen an online post encouraging Capitol Studios to rename their revered Studio A 'Studio AL.' It’s all a testament to how beloved Al was to the music industry. But to me, he was first and foremost my dad. I called him Daddy-O. And I’m just so proud of him for what he was able to accomplish in one lifetime. And for my family, it’s been humbling and heartwarming to see the immense outpouring of love and support from friends, colleagues, celebrities and even strangers who have expressed their gratitude for getting the chance to know him, work with him, or just listen to the music that he had produced or engineered over the decades.

His achievements are quite remarkable: 20 Grammys plus a trustees award from the Recording Academy and two Latin Grammys, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in front of Capitol Records and an honorary doctorate from Berklee.

My dad just loved to work. His excitement for working on any project was a testament to his core philosophy: “Find something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life.” He didn’t coin the phrase, but we certainly grew up hearing it. I’m an introvert and observer by nature. It’s why becoming a photographer was such great fit for me. I became serious about photography as a teen and decided that’s what I wanted to do for a living. Thankfully, he always encouraged me to keep at it and to follow my passion.

My dad loved telling us who he was working with next. He was genuinely excited every day he got to go to work. He always had a joke or story to tell. He was an open book. And people were excited to be working with him. The stories we’ve been reading the past few weeks online of how musicians would show up to work to see Al behind the console and just know it was going to be a good day.

In my mid-twenties, I lived in Hollywood just a few blocks from Capitol. When I’d visit him at the studio, I’d always pay attention to how people revered him and how the energy of a room would change when he’d walk in. He may have been short in stature, but he definitely had a larger-than-life presence about him that was truly admired and respected.

My dad’s personal life was colorful. He was married five times (twice to my mother) and had five kids. But I was the only child of theirs together. I’m sure each sibling would have a different POV of childhood and growing up a Schmitt. My older siblings grew up in the '50s and '60s when Al was a staff engineer at RCA. Back then he was working with all types of legendary artists including Henri Mancini, Elvis Presley, Steely Dan, Jefferson Airplane and Sam Cooke. My parents actually had dinner with Sam a few hours before he was killed.

Courtesy of Chris Schmitt
Chris Schmitt (age 11) with Jeff Porcaro and David Paich during Toto IV recording at Sunset Sound.

I moved to Nashville when I was seven years old with my mother and would visit my dad in summers and Christmas holidays flying alone on the airplane. Summers were spent regularly going to Paradise Cove Beach in Malibu, usually an annual vacation to Hawaii or Mexico, and of course tagging along to the studio with him when he had to work.

I can’t say I enjoyed going to the studio back then. To be honest, I was usually bored out of my mind. This was long before the days of smartphones and the Internet. But there were days that stood out as memorable and I always did enjoy seeing my Godfather Tommy LiPuma and meeting the artists and musicians. As a young kid I remember meeting George Benson and Al Jarreau, artists like Brenda Russell and Stevie Wonder.

My dad was a big foodie, so after work, we’d always go out to a nice restaurant. Back then his favorites were Villa Capri and then later Peppone’s in Brentwood. Ordering roasted lamb chops with mint jelly or froglegs sautéed in garlic and butter as a kid were as normal for me then as my kids ordering chicken nuggets today.

One particular summer stood out more than most. It was summer 1981 and I was only 10 years old. Al was recording Toto in Studio 2 at Sunset Sound in Hollywood for what was soon to become the Grammy winning album Toto IV. And I could tell by the level of excitement and partying in the studio that it was going well. Magic was being made. The band was always really nice to me. I particularly took a liking to Steve Lukather and Jeff Porcaro who went out of their way to welcome me and would let me bang on the drums a few times. At the end of the session, Jeff gave me a little drum pin off his jean jacket lapel, a set of drum sticks with his name engraved and later that year ended up actually shipping me a starter drum set back to Nashville in hopes that I would learn to play drums. What a legend!

Studio 3 had a really sweet woman named Toni Basil and she was recording her mega hit "Mickey." She invited me in to watch her record vocals a couple times and I had a big crush. There was an artist recording in Studio 1 who would arrive in a Purple 7 series BMW. He would say, “Hey kid, let’s shoot some hoops,” and we’d play a quick game of horse before he’d go into work. He destroyed me every time. He didn’t say much other than the occasional, “Nice shot.” I remember my dad came out on a break and said, “Do you know who that is?” “No,” I said. “That's Prince!”

A few weeks later we went to Switzerland together where he was working at the Montreux Jazz Festival and recording the Casino Lights album. Artists like Al Jarreau, Randy Crawford, David Sanborn, Larry Carlton and others. An impressive lineup to say the least.

He had a break in his schedule and we decided to take a day trip to the Italian Alps via the Great St. Bernard Tunnel which connects Switzerland to Italy. He had a work colleague Charlie who offered to drive. We stopped at a roadside bar shortly after the tunnel border crossing into Italy. They enjoyed several drinks while I mostly played outside and pretended to be in The Sound of Music rolling down the hillside. Hours later, that was to become a terrifying reality. On the way back through the tunnel border, they realized they had left our passports back at the bar and Charlie sped us back in the 1980 Opel hoping nobody had taken them. He took one of the hairpin turns too fast and we ended up in a very bad auto accident with the car flipping and rolling down the hillside many times. Somehow the car stopped on a ridge off the road just short of falling down one of the big alpine cliffs. During the roll, I was tossed from the back seat of the car from not wearing a seatbelt. Miraculously, I was fine. I remember it started to snow and it was very cold. Charlie and my dad were unconscious and I yelled for them to wake up. Thankfully they began coming to. My dad’s head was bleeding pretty badly and Charlie's white dress shirt was now red from his blood. He was drifting in and out of consciousness. For a 10-year-old, it was a scene out of a horror movie. I ran back up to the road and waved down the first car I saw. You can imagine the look on that driver's face who stopped to help. No one around for miles and a kid running towards them screaming in the snow with no warm clothes on. The man didn’t speak English, but he knew we needed help and he drove on to get us an ambulance from the nearest town. Eventually an ambulance arrived and took us to the hospital in the small town of Aosta, Italy.

My dad went into surgery for his head wound and they put me in a bed next to his in recovery. He tried to make light of the situation and cheer me up a little by making fun of the hospital food and the fact that no one spoke English. He would have been in his fifties then and it was the first time I had ever seen him scared. He just kept apologizing. He told me I had to find a way to call the U.S. and somehow get us back to Switzerland. There was a nurse there who took me to a phone outside the hospital and she dialed an international operator who spoke English. A couple days later we were picked up, taken back to Switzerland and then flown back home to California. My dad ended up with a few broken ribs and 14 blue stitches in his head which we both made fun of. That was the first time, as a kid, I remember him telling me how brave and proud he was of me for having to do this all alone.

Halfway through high school I decided to move back to L.A. and live with him to finish school. This was the height of the '80s party scene and back then my dad liked to party!

I’m not going to deny that we had some really tough times back then during my teen years. He had a temper and was never without an opinion. I heard on many occasions growing up half-jokingly in that Brooklyn accent, “If I wanted your opinion, I’d give it to you.” We butted heads then and had our fair share of father-son issues, but looking back now at those darker times, I realize the silver lining is that it has prevented me from ever wanting to use and abuse drugs and alcohol. Just after graduating high school my dad went into the AA program and it really changed his life… hell, it saved his life. He just celebrated his 32nd birthday in the AA program and honestly this is what I’m really most proud of him for.

Courtesy of Chris Schmitt
HWD Walk of Fame Star Ceremony with Al Schmitt, Chris Schmitt with his wife Andrea and kids Sawyer and Siena

Family was very important to my dad. He made an effort to call all of his kids on a regular basis especially during COVID. He truly loved his family and his wife Lisa of 30 years. In addition to Lisa, he leaves behind five children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, all of whom he adored. I have two kids Sawyer, 14, and Siena, 11. My dad enjoyed coming out to see Sawyer play his lacrosse games and show his support. My little girl adored her grandpa. We’d try and go out to lunch at least once a month to catch up. When we’d say goodbye, he’d always slip my kids a few bucks each which would make their eyes light up. Apparently, his grandfather did the same for him as a kid.

We all feel somewhat robbed of this last year with him being in lockdown due to COVID. And as soon as he got vaccinated, we tragically lost him. It was a shock since I think all of us naively hoped this man really might be invincible.

It makes me happy to know how much he was loved and celebrated while he was alive! So often celebrations of life in my opinion are too little too late. We should all be so lucky to live such a full life to 91. I love and miss you Daddy-O.

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