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Obituaries

Henry Lewy, 79; Sound Engineer, Music Producer Worked With Joni Mitchell

April 19, 2006|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Henry Lewy, a noted sound engineer whose influential work can be found on some of the leading records of the 1970s and '80s, has died. He was 79.

Lewy, who had been out of the recording business since the late 1980s, died April 8 in Prescott, Ariz., of complications from a fall, said family friend Bob Burton.

The list of rock music giants Lewy worked with reads like a who's who of '60s and '70s recording, including the Mamas and the Papas, the Flying Burrito Brothers, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison.

But his most notable collaborations came from his association with Joni Mitchell, with whom he made 13 albums over 14 years.

Lewy was born in Magdeburg, Germany, a city near Berlin, and his father was the well-to-do co-owner of a farm machinery business. But the fortunes of the Jewish family declined with the rise of Hitler.

By the late 1930s, Lewy's family bribed their way out of the country for passage to England. They arrived Sept. 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland.

They stayed in England six months before immigrating first to Canada and then to Savannah, Ga. Three years later, the family moved to Los Angeles. Lewy graduated from Hollywood High School in 1945.

After serving in the Army during World War II, Lewy went to radio school under the GI bill and found work in stations in San Diego, Las Vegas and Los Angeles as a disc jockey and engineer. He lived in South America for a time in the 1950s, joined a circus and engineered a German invention called the Dancing Waters, which had 16 centrifugal pumps and colored lights.

Audiences loved it, Lewy recalled in interviews over the years, but he didn't.

"It took 15 hours to set up and eight hours to tear down," he told BAM magazine in 1983. "It was exhausting."

He returned to Los Angeles in 1959, joined Liberty Records and helped engineer some of the original Chipmunks sessions. After working on demo recordings with Crosby and Stills, he learned about Mitchell from Crosby, a former boyfriend.

"David told me he had just split up with Joni and he was looking for someone who would help her make her second album," Lewy recalled.

"She didn't need a producer per se, but more a third ear, a catalyst between her and her material."

The first Lewy-Mitchell collaboration was "Clouds." He also worked on "Blue," "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," "Hejira" and "Wild Things Run Fast," among others.

Of Mitchell he once said, "She's the only true genius I've ever met.

"She comes up with the arrangements she does from listening carefully to her own piano or guitar parts. She has a very interesting style -- she's essentially self-taught and actually invents her own chords frequently -- and she can hear in her own parts the components for the fuller arrangement.

"When Joni gets musicians in the studio, the first three or four takes are usually just for listening. She doesn't want to think too much about them -- she just wants to play -- and frequently you get some real magic happening in those takes."

In addition to Mitchell, Lewy worked with Young on the "Harvest" album and participated in Jennifer Warnes' "Famous Blue Raincoat" album of songs by Leonard Cohen.

Lewy said the key to his success in working with some notoriously demanding artists was to "let them be who they are" and not impede the process.

"I don't have a big ego -- I guess that makes all the difference," Lewy told Music Connection magazine some years ago.

Lewy's health declined in the early 1990s, when he suffered a stroke and had heart surgery. He also battled rheumatoid arthritis.

His wife, Nadine, preceded him in death. He is survived by a sister, Eve Kaus; and two nieces.

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