On a pleasant spring afternoon, the man with the white walrus mustache and ergonomic cane sat at the front of the Minneapolis recording studio he founded 60 years earlier. He entertained questions from students from local high schools and music colleges. And he told stories about working with Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand and Miles Davis.
Bruce Swedien opened a studio at Nicollet Av. And 26th St. in his hometown of Minneapolis in 1953. After he moved on to win five Grammys and work with some of music’s biggest names, that studio hosted the Trashmen (“Surfin’ Bird”), Dave Dudley (“Six Days on the Road”), Hüsker Dü, Steve Miller Band, the Jets, Paula Abdul, Lorie Line, Connie Evingson, Leo Kottke and countless others.
Swedien, the dean of Twin Cities recording studios who famously engineered Jackson’s landmark “Thriller,” died Tuesday, his daughter announced on Facebook. He was 86.
“He had a long life full of love, great music, big boats and a beautiful marriage,” Roberta Swedien said in a post.
Said Quincy Jones, Jackson’s legendary producer, on Instagram: “He was without question the absolute best engineer in the business, and for more than 70 years I wouldn’t even think about going into a recording session unless I knew Bruce was behind the board.”
In 2013, while visiting a relative in Minneapolis, Swedien returned to the studio he founded, now known as Creation Audio, for the first time since he’d left for Chicago 55 years earlier.
“My wife [Bea] helped glue up the egg cartons,” he said, referring to the dozens of empty containers still visible in Studio B. “They were a superb and very cheap acoustical treatment.”
As he peered at the dark-pink 4-inch-thick doors to Studio A, Swedien said proudly: “I built those doors; if you look carefully at them, you’ll see they’re very solid, very thick….This place is unbelievable. My whole life started here.”
Swedien (he’s part Swedish, part French Canadian) realized while taking piano lessons as a youngster in south Minneapolis that he wasn’t going to be a classical pianist — he preferred boogie woogie. At 10, he received a disc-recording machine from his father and became fascinated with the recording process.
After majoring in electrical engineering (and minoring in music) at the University of Minnesota, he opened Bruce Swedien Recording in an old movie theater in south Minneapolis. Self-taught, he recorded such local acts as Six Fat Dutchmen and the Herb Pilhofer Octet and national jazz stars Herbie Mann and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers.
When a CBS Radio broadcaster traveled through the Dakotas on assignment, Swedien got hired as a sound engineer. That led him to Chicago, where he joined RCA Victor studios and recorded the Chicago Symphony and many jazz artists, including Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton.
His break came as engineer for Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons’ smash single “Big Girls Don’t Cry” in 1962. But his best move in Chicago was getting to know jazz trumpeter-turned-producer Quincy Jones.
“Quincy was the first man to pay me big-time royalties,” Swedien said.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1975, Swedien was summoned by Jones to New York in ’77 to engineer sessions for the movie “The Wiz.” He met the film’s star, Michael Jackson, and went on to engineer the superstar’s biggest albums.
Swedien's extensive credits include working with Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, Donna Summer and Jennifer Lopez as well as jazz stars Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne and Herbie Hancock.
Seven years ago, on Swedien’s return visit to his first studio, Creation owner Steve Wiese arranged for pianist Jeanne Arland Peterson, then 91, whom Swedien recorded there in 1954, to bring her bass-playing son Billy and singing daughter Patty.
Swedien meticulously set up the microphones, telling how Streisand would bring her own mike to the recording studio. The Petersons were set to record “The Shadow of Your Smile.”
Swedien suggested a ballad feel.
“So not a Latin feel?” Patty Peterson asked.
“Patty, just sing it Acapulco,” Swedien joked.
After the Petersons performed it, he opined: “It sounds wonderful to the untrained ear.”
Patty wanted another take.
“Your pitch is good, and I’ve recorded every goddamn singer there is,” he replied. “Tape is cheap. Music is expensive.”
After recording five tunes, he and the Petersons listened to the playback.
“Jeanne, you have a real future,” Swedien announced.
“Well, thank you,” she said.