When Rock Stars Need Vintage Recording Gear, They Go to Charlie Bolois

When Rock Stars Need Vintage Recording Gear, They Go to Charlie Bolois
Photo courtesy of Charlie Bolois

[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. Follow him on twitter and also check out his archives.]

With Charlie Bolois, it’s hard to know what story to begin with.

Do you recount when the proprietor of Vertigo Recording Services was just 21, working for Motown, and tasked to deliver audio equipment to Marvin Gaye’s brand-new Hidden Hills mansion? When he arrived, he discovered the soul legend accompanied by an identically dressed “mini-me,” both eating watermelon beside an empty pool, wearing flannels and beanies in the sweltering Valley sun.

Then there’s the afternoon that Dr. Dre summoned Bolois to his estate in a gated community. When Bolois arrived, the Doc was absent and his front lawn was filled with intimidating associates washing Escalades and Ferraris. Suddenly, the sprinklers turned on and sent everyone scurrying. Bolois calmly entered the house and effortlessly fixed what ailed Dre’s analog studio.

Or there’s the time Snoop Dogg recruited him to fix Jam Master Jay’s original boombox.

“It was really easy. Only one wire was broken. I didn’t even charge him,” Bolois says, in the Burbank office that serves as his headquarters when he’s not out constructing studios or fixing old microphones for the world’s most famous musicians.

The bespectacled man in the blue bowling shirt, gray shorts and an earring is a rock star’s best friend. In 30-plus years, he has amassed a peerless clientele: Van Halen, Pink Floyd, Phoenix, Beck, Jim James, Elton John, Tom Petty and T Bone Burnett.

His office doubles as a shrine to vintage studio equipment used by Miles Davis, The Beatles and Frank Sinatra.

“That’s the Zeus of compressors, and that’s the Apollo,” Bolois says, pointing at a coveted set of Fairchild 660 and 670 tube compressors (estimated value: $30,000 to $50,000 each).

A reel-to-reel tape player whirls, playing a cascading acoustic guitar solo composed by Eddie Van Halen for Bolois’ wedding. Outside the cramped office, his vast warehouse is filled with outboard gear, crates and speaker stacks.

Since the dawn of the digital era in the early 2000s, Bolois’ business has paradoxically increased. He’s become the go-to guy for guitar gods seeking the classic recording techniques of pop culture mythology.

For Petty’s recently released Hypnotic Eye, Bolois helped the head Heartbreaker to acquire a highly coveted Neumann U47 microphone.

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  “After using it a short while, [Petty] — who has really great musical hearing — said that he liked it, but he wasn’t crazy about the distortion produced,” Bolois says. “I thought about it, gathered a few parts, and created a microphone specifically tailored to his voice, without the distortion.”

In 2012, Phoenix contacted him about a potential eBay purchase of the recording console used by Michael Jackson for Thriller. A third party unconnected to the Jackson family wanted as much as $1 million, according to Bolois. But Thomas Mars, the band’s lead singer, was wary of the price and logistics of shipping it to France.

Mars “sent me these cryptic, mad ramblings from the seller that even I, an English-speaking native, couldn’t decode,” Bolois laughs. “It was a Tolkien-like adventure.” Bolois eventually negotiated the sellers down to $17,000.

More recently, the analog whisperer has built studios in Austin, Texas, Joshua Tree and New Orleans for Dave Grohl’s new HBO series, Sonic Highways.

“[Grohl] loves and demands analog. He hates Pro Tools and anything digital,” Bolois says. “My participation allowed and guaranteed that the band could record to analog tape without any computer manipulation or cheating, whatsoever.”

His affability, engineering skill and encyclopedic knowledge of music history have endeared Bolois well beyond basic employer-employee relationships. He’s closer to a highly sought-after surgical specialist than a simple technician — the Asclepius to their Orpheus.

“People want to connect to the mythology of the music they were raised on, and the equipment is very much a part of it,” Bolois says. “I’m just trying to help them reach those great heights of the past.”

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