September 2006 Issue

Parnelli Innovator Honoree, Father of Festival Sound

All you need to know about Bill Hanley is this: as a kid he fondly recalls a local roller rink. But it's not the fun he had skating with his friends, or perhaps the scene of his first crush he most wants to talk about.

No, it's the speakers he speaks of with precision.

"I was skating every day and I fell in love with the music," he recalls. "There was this organ, and it was played loud with 12 Hammond B-40 tone cabinets and two 20-watt amplifiers with four 12-inch electro-dynamic loud speakers in a rink with excellent acoustics. I would go hear other, bad, sound systems and wonder why something couldn't sound as good as that roller rink." Such appreciation for sound quality would take him on a journey as a pioneer and innovator through the pop culture history of the 1960s and 1970s. He was behind the sound of some of the biggest acts and events of the day: Newport Jazz Festivals, the Kingston Trio, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Woodstock, Blind Faith, Velvet Underground, Jefferson Airplane's European tour, Festival Express, the Fillmore East, and many more. He dramatically improved the live event experience so much so that his influence is seen, felt and heard four decades later. He was even the first to coin the term, "sound reinforcement."

"I first met Bill when I was on tour with the Young Americans," recalls Stan Miller, Neil Diamond's long-time engineer. "He was doing the sound for the New York State Fair. Bill is an idol and an innovator, able to make something out of almost nothing."

"A true eccentric," says lighting designer and Parnelli Lifetime Achievement honoree Chip Monck, who crossed paths often with Hanley, including at Woodstock. "Bill is a great concept person, a visionary. He never had a negative word to say, only wanting a stable power supply and a bit more time."

"It was great working with him," says Michael Lang, legendary promoter of both Woodstocks. "He had a great sense of humor and had great determination. He's the father of festival sound, that's for sure."


Bill Hanley was born in 1937 in Medford, Mass., the oldest of five children. His father was a police lieutenant and observant enough to notice Hanley's early attraction to electronics. At the age of six, he gave him his first crystal set, which was followed by a one-tube radio, then a six-tube radio.

Brother Terry, today president of Terry Hanley Audio that he founded in 1969, is 10 years younger than Bill and started working with him very early. "When I was eight, we used to install TV antennas on roofs," he tells. "Then he used to fix TVs for neighbors, and that somehow lead to doing sound."

Terry would go along carrying the toolbox and help him assemble things. He also recalls that they hooked up one of the early amplifiers they built to a big speaker, pointed it out their attic window, and started blaring Christmas music. "Then we put sound in the neighborhood square, then the church for meetings, then we were doing little dances."

By the time Terry was in the sixth grade, the boys got their first big job: doing sound for an air show in Hanscom Field, near Bedford, Mass. That was a big deal because they had to buy a bunch of equipment. However, in the tradition of older brothers everywhere, Bill was able to cut "labor" costs--"I was pretty much an unpaid assistant," Terry says.

An early mentor to Bill was Tom Rawson, a teacher at his vocational school. Rawson would take him to Boston Garden to experience the sound system there. He was not impressed. "I would hear this great music at the roller rink, then go see an Ice Capades at the Garden and it sounded terrible." His intrigue led him to a meeting with Barney Noonan, the electrician at the Garden. He would learn about big sounds systems from him as well.

In 1955 he graduated from school and went to work for Laboratory for Electronics. He moved through various departments working with circuit boards and parts. "There were a bunch of heavy-weights there, MIT boys, who were really sharp." But so was he, and when the president of that company left to start Cole Corporation, he took Hanley with him, and soon he was working on gyro table controls for rocketry.

Despite that heady vocation, he would go home and build more amplifiers, mixers and speakers, always experimenting. "Sound was my home project, because no one would hire me in the sound industry," he laughs. That proved to not be completely true as soon he was moonlighting and providing sounds for events like the Boston Arts Festival.

However, it was the despicable dark ages of professional sound, where promoters and even some musicians needed first to be convinced that good sound was important. "There was a lack of desire to do better," he sighs. "I had to beg for work."

"It was Sheer Pandemonium"

In 1957, Hanley chased down Newport Jazz Festival promoter George Wein and got to provide sound reinforcement for jazz pianist George Shearing. It went well and other big jobs started to trickle in. He also did his first festival at Pleasure Island, Mass. in 1958. He worked well with the tools available, but what was available left much to be desired.

"What was lagging was poor frequency response in the sound reinforcement field," he explains. "People with a lot of money could afford the big speaker boxes, the EVs and JBLs, expensive home hi-fi sound systems. I tried to get a franchise with those companies, but no luck." Still keeping his day job, he was building amplifiers and experimenting and finally got franchised with Binghamton, N.Y. based McIntosh.

He continued to work the mixing board at Newport and other festivals, and finally left his day job and launched Hanley Sound. "It was built on the dream of putting high quality audio out there for the masses." But the times were very lean, he adds with a laugh. Even a meeting with Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' manager, had him leaving empty handed. "He had no interest in quality sound. That was the whole attitude of the music world other than George Wein and a few musicians. It was murder to sell. And I took every dime I had to buy and build speakers and amps."

As to the company's early success, Terry says: "For one thing, we were doing things people weren't doing. I can remember the first speakers we built because we didn't have enough money to buy speakers and the larger speakers were theatre speaker systems anyway. So we built some of our own. We used those Rebels, which could actually be assembled into cabinets about five feet deep and five-and-a-half feet wide. The speakers had to be really efficient because the amps back then were pretty small."

And the few gigs the brothers did get would leave them only with a few hundred dollars a night. Finally, though, the touring world started coming around to his way of thinking. In early 1960s, he opened an office in New York City. They provided sound for places like Café A Go Go and the Bitter End. Also designing, he developed a four-driver loudspeaker that was revolutionary.

Musicians of the stature of Brian Wilson started putting Hanley under contract, but it was very much the Wild West and nothing could be counted on to last for long. "We started doing tours for the Beach Boys, then Mike Love decided to go into the sound business himself," he laughs.

But a gig for local Boston band The Remains, playing in Chicago, lead to something very big. The Remains member Barry Tashian has written about the experience:

"Our sound company from Boston, Hanley Sound, drove to Chicago to do the show [opening for the Beatles] with us. They pulled their truck right into the Amphitheater and set up their state-of-the-art sound equipment right beside the in-house P.A. system. What a joke! The in-house stuff was so archaic next to the powerful amps, good mics, and Altec speakers. Right before the show, Brian Epstein looked at the two sound systems and decided that the Beatles should go with our system. So the Beatles hired Bill Hanley to do the sound for the [eastern part] of the tour!"

And thus Hanley next found himself behind the board at the historic Beatles concert at Shea Stadium. He distributed Altec- Lansing speakers all around the stadium, doubled the sound typically used, doubled the power with an impressive (for the time) 600-watt amplifier system… and then when an armored car drove onto the field and John, Paul, George and Ringo stepped out, his sound system was pulverized by the power of 42,000 screaming teenage girls.

"I didn't have a snowball's chance in hell," he laughs. "It was sheer pandemonium. I had the band on the pitcher's mound, the speakers on the first and third base line, and I made this big circle of sound, all facing up, so the speakers didn't cross… but it was going against 135 dB of screaming. I couldn't approach that."

"This Crazy Guy from Boston"

More bands turned to Hanley Sound, and Buffalo Springfield put him under contract. Another breakthrough would come from working with this group: the idea of the on-stage "monitor."

"Neil Young used my sound system as a monitor system so he could hear himself singing, and I never realized how important that was," Hanley says. "They took the Rebel speakers and put them on the floor, then used a unidirectional mic, and there was no feedback. Prior to that we just used side fills, and that idea never crossed my mind. And it took me a while to get used to doing that." In typical Hanley style, he improved on the idea, switching out different equipment, and it was another gigantic step forward for live sound.

Lee (Makler) Blumer, currently director of events of Crobar in New York, was hired by Bill Graham in 1968 to open the Fillmore East. Hanley was brought in to do sound. "He's one of the most unusual people I've ever run across--a visionary. At the Fillmore, you could actually hear the music." Perhaps one of the greatest sideways compliments for Hanley is this: Blumer says Graham, infamous for being in everyone's business and breathing down everyone's necks, left Hanley completely alone to do his work.

"There were no problems Bill Hanley couldn't solve himself," she adds. "Everyone in the business today owes something to this mad, crazy professor." Hanley also handled President Johnson's inaugural ceremony and even did a gig with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Finally, there was the pivotal gig of live event history: Woodstock.

"I was trying to find someone who could do a sound system for Woodstock, and there was no one who had ever done something like that before," says Michael Lang, promoter of both Woodstocks. "Then there was this crazy guy in Boston who might want to take a shot at it." Lang says they spoke at length, and it left him feeling that Hanley understood the Herculean task at hand. He points out that in those days, you couldn't rent systems--they needed to be built from scratch.

When the first location for the event fell through, Hanley went with Lang to Max's farm in a limo, visualized where the stages and sound equipment would go and said, "this is it." He liked the spot because he could set up the stages and equipment in a big "V," a design that provided crowd control as well as giving free flowing access to backstage performers. Plus, it meant sound from one stage wouldn't bleed into another.

In the beginning, Hanley was handling much of the production--picking the crew, even handling the master recording. "It worked very well," he says of the event. "I built special speaker columns on the hills and had 16 loudspeaker arrays in a square platform going up to the hill on 70-foot towers. We set it up for 150,000 to 200,000 people.

"Of course, 500,000 showed up."

"I thought the sound was great, and everyone I talked to thought the sound was great," Lang adds. "Everyone could hear, nothing blew up, and it all hung together perfectly. And it was all mostly on Bill's instincts."

In August of 1970, Hanley was called on by Peter, Paul, & Mary's Peter Yarrow to do what was going to be a Woodstock-sized concert at Powder Ridge Ski Resort in Middlefield, Conn.

"I went down to the local police station, and there were three or four recorders operating on the wall, tapping phone lines," Hanley says as an example of the anti-war passion and the government's fever-pitch response. The event was shut down before Hanley could even set up his equipment, and Hanley was even arrested. Despite being cancelled, 30,000 attendees arrived anyway to find no music, no food--nothing--and mayhem ensued.

Hanley's social conscience lead him to do work on several anti-war protest rallies and send an entire sound system to South Africa for their Anti-Apartheid Movement, among many other causes.

Meanwhile, the 1970s brought great change to the industry. "I didn't understand money, and the industry went Hollywood." From the 1970s on, he would continue to be called on for sound work, and he also turned his attention to staging.

Hanley would be invited back to Woodstock 1999 as an esteemed guest. "Bill came on site and was having great fun hanging out," recalls David Scheirman, JBL vice president, tour sound. "But things got tense on the final day. Some of the rowdy parts of the crowd started fires, stole, and basically brought an element of unrest to what had been pleasant. Bill's experience and crisis management skills came into play. Bill kept a cool head under pressure--literally under fire, as the action lounge area was one of the places that were lit on fire. His direct leadership in terms of safeguarding people and equipment, and the way he shamed people into better behavior was a key factor" in keeping things from getting completely out of hand.

On their relationship, Terry Hanley says, "He is my mentor and buddy. He'd come up with the vision, and I'd blast off on it," he laughs. "I tell ya, we had a lot of vision that wasn't really practical… but we were the can-do kids." Today the brothers live about five miles apart, and Bill's son Joe is working for him. Bill and his wife Rhoda Rosenberg, an artist, live in Merrimac, Mass.

"Hanley taught the industry what a sound man is," Scheirman adds. "More than just big equipment, it takes the skills of an engineer with the sensibility of an artist to translate quality sound to an audience."

Hanley will receive the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award on October 20, 2006, at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas during LDI. For more information and to make reservations, go to
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