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Heil passing prompts flood of memories

By RANDY PIERCE
tribune@heraldpubs.com

Few, if any at all, individuals with a connection to Fairview Heights have made as significant of a worldwide impact well beyond the city’s borders as the late Robert G. “Bob” Heil whose passing at the age of 83 was announced on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2024.

Bob Heil

The founder and owner-operator of Heil Sound Ltd., located at 5800 North Illinois Street in Fairview Heights (on the east side of the street, south of Ashland Avenue), he was so skilled and accomplished at the manufacture of microphones, sound systems, music mixing equipment and much more that, in 2006, an exhibit dedicated to his work was established at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

Heil has made equipment like that mentioned above for artists and groups such as The Who, Grateful Dead, Dolly Parton, ZZ Top, Eagles, Stevie Wonder, Flash, the Charlie Daniels Band, Jerry Lee Lewis and, more recently, Gnarls Barkley and Sheryl Crow, among others.

One of the greatest selling live-recorded albums of all-time, featuring a performance by Peter Frampton that was issued circa 1976, drew considerable attention upon its release and subsequent explosion in popularity because of the artist’s use of an electronic “talk box” on its heavily-aired (on FM rock radio) “Do You Feel Like We Do?” track.

Research into Heil’s background indicates his sound business was formally initiated in 1966 under its current name but exactly when it opened in Fairview Heights (which actually was not officially incorporated as a city until 1969) is unclear as for a few years prior to then he was the proprietor of a store called Ye Olde Music Shoppe in Marissa in the southern part of St. Clair County.

One of Heil’s many friends in the music industry, as a result of their acquaintance not only related to the performance of music but also as ham radio operators, was Joe Walsh whose career began in the late 1960s/early 1970s with a rock group called The James Gang before he joined the Eagles a few years beyond that.

It was Walsh who discovered that a ham radio microphone made by Heil produced such good sound, the musician/vocalist ended up using it on stage and was followed in doing so by other high-visibility acts.

An obviously gifted Heil saw his interest in music accelerate as a 12-year-old in 1952 when his parents bought him a Hammond organ at the same time he was also becoming skilled as an accordion player.

His first performance “gig” was at Valentine’s restaurant in Freeburg then Heil ended up taking organ lessons from St. Louis music icon Stan Khan, progressing enough to substitute for him at the Fox Theatre when needed.

After learning how to repair and build pipe organs, Heil got a license to make ham radios then expanded his interests into other areas connected with sound including amplification and intricate systems for live performance along with stocking his business with instruments like Les Paul and Fender guitars.

The British rock group The Who, which began recording in the 1960s and gained great fame with the production of a rock opera titled “Tommy,” had presented a concert in Boston in 1969 that was panned because of the poor sound quality so Heil designed a new system for them which turned things around into a more positive direction for the live shows being presented by the quartet consisting of Roger Daltrey, Peter Townshend, Keith Moon and John Entwistle.

Having been made aware of this, members of the San Francisco-based Grateful Dead ended up utilizing Heil’s expertise and even visited his business in Marissa while making a tour stop in St. Louis with photos taken then providing verification.

“Hi Tech” Heil, a nickname he adopted as his reputation grew to worldwide proportions, was awarded an honorary doctorate degree in 2014 by the University of Missouri and in early 2022 transferred the ownership of his Fairview Heights business to a pair of long-time employees, Ash Levitt and Steve Warford, now middle-aged men who had been working for him since they were in their teens. From that time until his death, Heil’s title connected with the business was founder and chief executive officer emeritus.

Surviving along with his wife, Sara (nee Benton) Heil, a sister, Mrs. Bob (Barbara) Schneidewind, and his former “life partner,” Judy Mortensen Heil, are grandchildren Jonathan, Cate, Lizzie, Charlie, Alex, Luke and Julian.

Preceding Heil in death were his parents, Robert George “Bob” and LaVerna (nee Bills) Heil. The family had a private service in his memory and his body is being donated to the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Memorials may be made to Shriners Children’s Hospital in St. Louis or the American Radio Relay League Education and Technology Fund.

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