When Bob From Marissa Saved The Dead

When The Grateful Dead pulled into St. Louis to do a show at the Fox Theater on February 2, 1970, things weren’t going so well.

The day before, their sound maven, Augustus Owsley “Bear” Stanley III, had been arrested in New Orleans for violating the terms of his parole.  He had a pending trial for manufacturing a truly astounding quantity of LSD and wasn’t supposed to leave California.  New Orleans is not in California, so hence the trouble.

Stanley owned and ran the sound equipment for the band, so the gents arrived in St. Louis with no sound equipment and a show to do in several hours.

The Grateful Dead in 1970.  They had a problem.  Bob from Marissa had a solution.

Fortunately, one of the stage hands at the Fox, a guy named George Bales, knew one of the theater’s organists.  This organist was also a dedicated audiophile who had taken the old sound system from the theater back to his home in Marissa, Illinois (St. Clair County) and had enhanced it to put out perfect concert sound.

This organist/sound engineer’s name was Bob Heil, and luckily enough, George Bales had his phone number.

Bob Heil at his music shop in Marissa, Illinois, 1970s.

Jerry Garcia called Heil out in Marissa and, according to Heil, said: “Hey, man, I hear you’ve got a really big P.A.”  Heil grabbed two of his assistants, packed up the gear, and began the forty-minute drive to St. Louis from Marissa.

If you’re interested in the technical details of Heil’s audio alchemy, you can read about it here.  Basically, Heil combined a radically altered theater sound system with a modified studio recording console and a series of auxiliary microphones that effectively canceled the feedback that was so often a problem.

The system was rigged up.  It sounded good.  Jerry liked the feedback canceling setup that Heil had concocted.  Messrs. Garcia, Weir, Lesh, McKernan, Hart, and Kreutzmann took the stage at the Fox and played a good show.  Listen to a fragment (including a great rendition of “Dark Star” here).

After the show, the band liked the sound system so much that Heil and his guys were invited to finish out the tour with them.

Although they didn’t know it, it was on that night that modern concert audio was born, all because of an arrest and a last-ditch, Hail Mary phone call to an audio genius in a small Illinois town.

Heil would go on to tour with The Who (with whom he worked on their album Quadrophenia), Joe Walsh, and Jeff Beck.  He also invented the “talk box” used most notably (or irritatingly) by Peter Frampton.

All of this because a guy made too much acid and got arrested.  Long strange trip, indeed.

Sources/Further Reading

Interview with Bob Heil about that night in 1970.

Biographical interview with Heil, focusing on his role in changing audio production.

Heil Sound (headquartered in Fairview Heights, Illinois) official website.


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