Just reading Steve Harvey over at the AV Network talking about the event that kicked off modern concert sound production.
While various individuals and companies were simultaneously working on developing bigger and louder speaker systems across the country, and around the world, particularly in the U.K., the birth of the modern concert production sound system can arguably be traced to a singular event. On February 2, 1970, the Grateful Dead arrived in St. Louis, MO to perform at the Fox Theatre, reportedly the second largest movie theater in the country when it was built in 1929. But with upward of 5,000 fans expected, the band had a problem—engineer Owsley “Bear” Stanley had been detained by police, along with the truck hauling the Dead’s P.A.
“There’s a phone call from the stage manager at the Fox. He says, ‘You still got those big speakers?’ He said, ‘Talk to this guy,’ and handed the phone to [Grateful Dead guitarist] Jerry Garcia,” recalled Bob Heil, now perhaps better known as the founder of Heil Microphones.
In 1957 the Fox had hired a teenage Heil to play the venue’s pipe organ. Visiting the venue a decade later he spotted four Altec Lansing A-4 Voice of the Theatre speaker cabinets being thrown out and took them back to his music store (one of the country’s first pro audio retail outlets) in Marissa, IL, 50 miles outside St. Louis. Recognizing that most P.A. systems were still too underpowered for rock ‘n’ roll, Heil used the A-4s as the basis for a massive rig, fabricating his own speaker cabinets and fiberglass horns, and powering the system with McIntosh hi-fi amplifiers.
A licensed ham radio operator since 1956, Heil knew his way around a soldering iron and was an inveterate tinkerer. He ran into guitarist Joe Walsh, then fronting the James Gang, and discovered they were ham radio buddies, and with Walsh’s encouragement, he grew the sound system (they still collaborate). Along the way, Heil developed one of the first electronic crossovers and a modular mixing console, subsequently replacing it with a Langevin recording console modified for live use by a recent graduate from the University of Illinois, Tomlinson Holman, who later developed the Lucasfilm THX sound system.
“That was the board we used that night [at the Fox Theatre],” he said. “I think that’s what blew them all away; we had these fabulous, wonderful things.” The Grateful Dead hired Heil for the remainder of the tour, and Heil Sound went on to work with Jeff Beck, ZZ Top, Humble Pie and many others.
Heil estimates that the rig at the Fox that night was capable of delivering over 20,000 watts. As a comparison, The Who, self-described “loudest band in the world,” put together a system of WEM columns for the 1970 Isle of Wight festival—attended by several hundred thousand fans—that generated just 5,000 watts. When the band arrived in the U.S. in 1971 for the Who’s Next tour they contacted Heil, and continued to use Heil Sound rigs on both sides of the Atlantic through 1975.
This lead to an immediate search on archive.org for the event, which has a few recordings of the night. We picked out the most popular stream to embed here, featuring Cumberland Blues, Dark Star > Saint Stephen > Mason’s Children, Turn On Your Love Light.
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