Quite simply, Bob Heil’s unlikely “rock star” story is legendary.
Heil is mild-mannered, friendly and encouraging. He’s never smoked or drank, so he isn’t anything like the stereotypical rocker. He is, however, considered by many to be the father of modern rock-concert sound. He was the first to build very, very loud speakers that pumped out the volume for everyone from the Grateful Dead to The Who and many other legendary bands. His creations were so important over time that Heil has a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
I first met the celebrated sound equipment manufacturer when we both trod the hallways of KMOX radio in the early ’90s. He was known to listeners as “High Tech Heil” and talked about the latest innovations in audio and video. The first time I heard the phrase high-definition television was from Heil. I knew he had notable credentials, but I mostly thought he was more of a techno geek. It wasn’t until years later that I found out he’d been hanging out with rock ’n’ roll royalty for decades and played a significant role in the music’s history.
Heil was born in Marissa, Illinois, in 1940. His parents owned a modest clothing store in that small town southeast of the metro area. When he was 12, he started dabbling with amateur (“ham”) radio and learned how to play the organ. He was so good that he caught the attention of renowned Fox Theatre organist Stan Kann.
Kann took Heil under his wing, and he became the substitute organist at The Fabulous Fox Theatre. He also became an expert on the theater’s massive Wurlitzer organ. Heil helped refurbish it, and that is how he says he learned the true sounds of sound.
“I had to learn to listen,” Heil tells me. “Most people don’t know how to listen – they only hear. I had to listen to the harmonic values and the voice of the instrument. You had to make sure the harmonics from one pipe to the next sounded the same. Little did I know that working on that organ was going to be the basis for my careers years later.”
All during this time, Heil was still working with ham radio technology and became an expert with sound frequencies and radio waves and with building amplifiers, transmitters and microphones. He mixed his knowledge of organ harmonics with electronics to create the technology that would soon revolutionize rock-concert sound.
Heil was still working with The Fabulous Fox Theatre in the late ’60s when the theater replaced its speakers. The old ones were about to be trashed when Heil asked if he could have them.
“They were installed in the Fox in 1929,” Heil recalls. “They were front-load Altec A4s, and they were huge”
With boyish glee, he adds: “I put new horns in them, and I bought some new McIntosh amps, and I built a sound system. To me, it was a big hi-fi – never did I realize what was about to happen.”
Not long after, the Grateful Dead rolled into The Fabulous Fox Theatre for a show, but their sound equipment had been confiscated by the feds during a drug bust a few nights before in New Orleans. The same stage manager who gave Heil the old speakers called him.
“He asked, ‘Have you still got those old speakers?’” Heil says. Then the stage manager handed the phone to Jerry Garcia – and the rest, as they say, is history. Heil’s sound system blew the Dead away, and the band hired him on the spot to go on tour. A writer for a trade publication heard the story of the concert rescue and the new extreme amplification and wrote an article titled “The Night Rock and Roll Sound Was Born.” After that article, every rock band in the world wanted the equipment and the advice of the young sound wizard from Marissa.
Heil went on to develop the revolutionary quadraphonic sound system for The Who and toured the world with the band. Then he invented the Heil Talk Box, and singer Peter Frampton used its synthesized sound to change his career. Joe Walsh of the James Gang and the Eagles asked Heil to modify one of his ham microphones, and it became an essential part of Walsh’s equipment.
Today, Heil mikes are used by country artists Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban, as well as Texas rock titans ZZ Top, just to name a few. Heil also has become a major producer of microphones for the ham radio and broadcast industries. His successes have been phenomenal.
Heil still has trouble explaining it all. “I was just a kid from Marissa,” he says. “I was just blessed to be in the right place so many times. You can’t make this stuff up.”
It truly is the kind of story that legends are made of.
Paul Brown is a longtime journalist on radio, on television and in print as a reporter, an anchor, a talk show host and a columnist. He’s also a partner and senior marketing executive with Brought 2U Media, a marketing and advertising company that specializes in high-definition video vehicles and digital light-emitting diode signage.