Bruce Earl Fairbairn, musician, record producer (born 30 December 1949 in Vancouver, BC; died 17 May 1999 in Vancouver). Bruce Fairbairn started his career with the progressive soft-rock band Prism before becoming one of the most sought-after producers of the 1980s and 1990s. Known as the “king of heavy metal producers,” he produced more than 50 studio albums in 22 years, working with such acts as Loverboy, Honeymoon Suite, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, AC/DC, INXS, Van Halen and The Cranberries. Nicknamed “the school teacher” for his focused and disciplined approach, Fairbairn was nominated for 11 Juno Awards for Producer of the Year and won three. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame.
A next door neighbour introduced Fairbairn to the trumpet when he was five years old. It was love at first sight. In a 1998 interview, Fairbairn said, “It was one of those things where somebody goes down in the basement and opens up a case and there’s a shiny silver trumpet. [My neighbour] used to get it out and play a few licks, and I was totally mesmerized by it.” Fairbairn began taking lessons around age six and eventually became classically trained on the instrument. He also became adept at playing piano.
Fairbairn started playing in cover bands while attending Prince of Wales Secondary School in Vancouver and formed his own rhythm and blues outfit called the Spectres. Around this time, he met promoter Bruce Allen, who became a mentor and lifelong friend.
After graduating with an honours degree in biology from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1970, Fairbairn formed a new band called Sunshyne. The group struggled to land a record deal, so Fairbairn returned to UBC for a master’s degree in environmental planning, which he completed in 1974. He then landed a job working for BC Hydro, all the while working part-time to get Sunshyne off the ground.
In 1976, he approached former Sunshyne bandmate Jim Vallance and Lindsay Mitchell, a guitarist in the blues-rock band Seeds of Time, to partner together in a new group called Stanley Screamer. The band cut some demos, hired Bruce Allen as manager, changed their name to Prism and signed a deal with GRT Records. Not long after, Vallance — who had played drums in the band under the pseudonym Rodney Higgs — decided to leave the group.
From 1977 to 1980, the progressive soft-rock band released four records: Prism (1977), See Forever Eyes (1978), Armageddon (1979) and Young and Restless (1980). They were all certified platinum in Canada, with Armageddon reaching double platinum status. Prism’s hit songs included “Spaceship Superstar,” “Take Me to the Kaptin,” “Don’t Let Him Know” and “Young and Restless.” The band toured heavily in Canada and the United States, opening for such acts as Meat Loaf, the Beach Boys and Cheap Trick. Fairbairn produced all four records he made with the band and won his first Juno Award in 1980 as Producer of the Year for Armageddon.
In 1980, with Bruce Allen’s encouragement, Fairbairn left Prism and undertook a career as a full-time producer. He set up shop at Little Mountain Sound Studios (where he had recorded the third and fourth Prism records), with his protege Bob Rock handling engineering duties.
One of Fairbairn’s first projects was the debut album of another Bruce Allen client, Loverboy. In a 1998 interview, Fairbairn said, “I think the success of the first Loverboy album was the key to the success of my producing career. To make that record was a very easy job because the guys played so well and they were just a real hot band at that time — all I had to do was get them in the studio, get the mikes in front of the gear, and turn on the tape recorder. But for me, it was the first record that was a big hit, especially in the States, so it was a milestone for me.” Loverboy (1980) peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard albums chart, selling more than two million records in the US and more than 500,000 in Canada. But the Fairbairn-produced follow-up, Get Lucky (1981), was even more successful, reaching No. 7 on the Billboard albums chart and selling more than four million copies in the United States.
Fairbairn’s success with Loverboy led American artists to seek his services. His first US clients included Blue Öyster Cult and heavy metal glam rock band Black ’N Blue. After hearing Fairbairn’s work on the Black ’N Blue record Without Love (1985), Jon Bon Jovi enlisted the producer to work on his band’s third studio effort, Slippery When Wet. Released in 1986, the record spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart and went on to sell more than 12 million copies. The band’s follow-up, New Jersey (1988), yielded five Top 10 hits and sold more than seven million records in the US.
Fairbairn then produced Aerosmith’s 1987 comeback album Permanent Vacation, which sold more than five million copies in the US. The follow-ups, Pump (1989) and Get a Grip (1993), each sold more than seven million copies. As Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler told Billboard magazine, Fairbairn “was very instrumental in birthing three of the greatest albums we’ve done.”
Fairbairn’s reputation was secured as he quickly became known as the “king of heavy metal producers.” In 1996, Fairbairn purchased Vancouver’s Armoury Studios, a recording studio near the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge, from Jim Vallance. During the 1990s, Fairbairn worked with such bands as Poison, INXS, Van Halen, Kiss, AC/DC and the Cranberries. Artists described the visionary Fairbairn’s style as supportive and authoritative.
Death and Legacy
On 17 May 1999, during the mixing for the Yes album The Ladder at Armoury Studios, Fairbairn was found dead in his Vancouver home at age 49. (The cause of death was never made public and may not have been determined.) When the album was released in September that year, the progressive rock band dedicated the record to Fairbairn. Guitarist Steve Howe wrote in his memoir that Fairbairn “was simply marvellous to work with. He knew exactly how to make records but had to remind us how to.”
When news of Fairbairn’s sudden passing spread, tributes from the music industry poured in. Jon Bon Jovi said in a statement, “Not only have we lost a great collaborator; we’ve lost a wonderful friend.” In the 29 May 1999 issue of Billboard, John Kalodner, senior VP of A&R at Columbia Records, said, “To me, Bruce is in the company of such great contemporary popular-music producers as George Martin, Phil Ramone, and Mutt Lange. We used to call him the ‘schoolteacher’ because he had such a focused, clear-minded work ethic about recording. He was a true master of his profession.”
Fairbairn was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2000 and into the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2004.
Bruce Fairbairn was married to Julie Glover and had three sons: Scott, Kevin and Brent.
Honours and Awards
- Producer of the Year (Prism, Armageddon) (1980)
- Producer of the Year (Loverboy, “Working for the Weekend,” “When It’s Over”) (1982)
- Producer of the Year (Aerosmith, Pump) (1990)
- Inductee, Canadian Music Hall of Fame (2000)
- Inductee, BC Entertainment Hall of Fame (2004)