Heil Heil Rock & Roll

Bob Heil and his legendary audio inventions head to Cleveland and the Hall of Fame

The unassuming building that houses Heil Sound in Fairview Heights, Illinois, is easy to miss. Next door to a Krispy Kreme and on the same traffic-clogged street as big-box stores like Borders, it's only marked by a "Heil Sound" sign in cheerful bubble letters — easily overlooked on a rainy spring day like the one on which A to Z visited.

Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69" is blasting over K-HITS in the reception area, an appropriate soundtrack for the surrounding décor: autographs of Eagles/James Gang member Joe Walsh and photos of the Who tastefully arrayed on the stark white walls. But these tokens aren't your run-of-the-mill memorabilia, and Bob Heil isn't your average concert-sound-equipment creator: His innovations will be exhibited at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in an installation that opens in early June.

The exhibit will include the first Heil Talk Box (a device perhaps best known for its use by Peter Frampton — remember "Show Me the Way"?). The first one was a gift to Walsh, one of Heil's best friends, who used it on "Rocky Mountain Way." There's also a Langevin recording console used by the Grateful Dead, as well as Who memorabilia that includes a still duct-taped mic used by Roger Daltrey and the mixing consoles Heil hand-built for the Quadrophenia and Who's Next tours.

Days before the Rock Hall arrives to carefully transport the equipment to Cleveland, Heil is greeting old friends and reporters alike and showing them around the vast storage space in the back of his offices. Sporting an electric-blue shirt and matching deep blue Converse shoes, he looks younger than his 65 years. But he's clearly excited, and a bit humbled, by the attention he's receiving. In fact, the way he and the Rock Hall crossed paths was as low-key as Heil Sound's longtime location.

"I got a friend of mine, he's with Radio Worldmagazine and he lives in Cleveland. Invited me up there," Heil says. "We met with the curator and all these guys. They went nuts when they found out I had some of this. I'm a pack rat, I don't throw much away.

"The curator came here about a year and a half ago and freaked out. He said, ‘We've got to have this! This is history.' So here we are. It's a pretty good compilation of what happened in the early days."

Heil would know: He began his music career playing organ at the Fox Theatre in 1956 at age fifteen and opened a music store, Ye Olde Music, in Marissa, Illinois, a decade later. These associations allowed him to rub elbows with nearly every notable classic rocker. (A cheeky "Go to Heil" bumper sticker on the exhibit lists a few: Journey, ELP, Montrose, Humble Pie, Bachman Turner Overdrive.) He famously saved a 1970 Grateful Dead show at the Fox by supplying amplifiers after the band's PA was confiscated in New Orleans.

Heil retreated from concert sound in 1982 and has since focused on microphones, specially for one of his first loves, ham radio. In recent years he has, as he puts it, "branched off into broadcast and recording." His mics are used at KTRS and KMOX, in the major league baseball studios in New York City and by David Letterman on his show. He's also easing back into the concert scene by working on this summer's James Gang reunion. On the day A to Z visited, Heil was preparing to leave for Kansas City to attend the opening of Tool's spring tour.

"I was called by them in August. They tried to use my Talk Box and couldn't get it going," Heil recounts. "They'd been in the studio for a year and they just couldn't get the sound they were looking for. They used my microphones, I fixed the Talk Box, got their amp going. They're using all my stuff onstage. They're even going to endorse our stuff, which is never heard of — Tool won't endorse anybody."

Even Maynard James Keenan rocks the Heil gear? Now that's an accomplishment.

 
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