Robert “Bob” G. Heil, 83, of Belleville, IL, peacefully passed away February 28, 2024 with his loving family at his side at Belleville Memorial Hospital after a very brave battle with cancer.
Bob was born October 5, 1940 in St. Louis and preceded in death by his parents Robert (Bob) George and LaVerna (Bills) Heil. He is survived by his wife Sarah (Benton) Heil of Belleville, IL, his sister Barbara (Bob) Schneidewind of Indian Rocks Beach, FL, his daughters from his marriage to Judy Mortensen Heil, Julie (Mark) Staley of Springfield, IL, and Barbara (David) Hartley of St. Louis, MO, a son by marriage Ash (Michelle) Levitt, of Belleville, IL, and seven grandchildren, Jonathan, Cate, Lizzie, Charlie, Alex, Luke, and Julian.
Bob grew up in Marissa, IL. He attended the University of Illinois in Champaign, IL, and was a member of the Marching Illini and Phi Kappa Tau fraternity. He eventually transferred to St. Louis to study music. A student of the famous Stan Kann, Bob became a proficient theater organ musician at a young age, beginning to perform at various local restaurants at the age of 14. At the age of 15, he became a professional performer on the Wurlitzer theater organ at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis. During that time, he learned to tune and voice the thousands of pipes in that great Wurlitzer organ. It was the platform that taught Bob how to listen – mentally dissecting discrete tones which became so important throughout his several careers. In his early twenties Bob began designing and building various theater pipe organ installations. In the evenings Bob played organ at the Holiday Inn restaurant in St. Louis six nights a week. Heil then opened Ye Olde Music Shop, a successful professional music shop in Marissa, Illinois, which ultimately became Heil Sound.
Bob became well-known for designing the concept of modern rock and roll systems we see today. Bob designed touring sound systems for rock and roll bands such as the Grateful Dead, the Who, and many others. Bob’s career was jumpstarted when the Grateful Dead arrived in St. Louis to play the Fabulous Fox in February 1970 without a sound system. Bob provided his own sound system for the show which was such a success that the band asked Bob and his sound system to join them on the road. That led to Bob designing sound and touring with the Who on their Who’s Next tour in 1971.
Bob invented the Heil Talk Box, which was frequently used by musicians such as Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh and Richie Sambora, and is still in use today by musicians of nearly every genre. The Heil Talk Box was the first high-powered talk box on the market, which could reliably be used on high-level rock stages. The first Heil Talk Box was built for Peter Frampton’s girlfriend to give to Peter as a Christmas present in 1974. It can be heard prominently on his 1975 album, Frampton and 1976’s Comes Alive – one of the best selling live albums of all time. His work made such an impact in the rock and roll industry that Heil Sound was invited to become the only manufacturer featured in a display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2006. Some of Bob’s historically important gear, including the first modular mixing console (the Mavis), his custom quadraphonic mixer (originally used on the Quadrophenia tour), and the very first Heil Talk Box were included in the display. Bob’s work was also featured in the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, MO.
An avid engineer, Bob proudly became an amateur radio operator at the age of 13 with the call sign K9EID. He spent much of his teen years designing and building homemade transmitters, amplifiers, and antenna systems, including his elaborate “moon bounce” antenna he used with NASA to transmit a signal to the moon and back. In the early 1980s, Bob left the pro sound industry to focus exclusively on the amateur radio market, first under the Melco brand, later returning to the Heil Sound brand, and currently under the Heil Ham Radio brand. Bob became a global innovator in the field of amateur radio, manufacturing headsets, microphones, equalizers, and accessories. Bob was very active in amateur radio giving countless presentations at hamfests and ham radio clubs, and a proud supporter of the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) and multiple youth programs for amateur radio.
Bob was a fixture in St. Louis through his “High Tech Heil” educational segments on KMOX radio plus KSDK and KTVI television. He frequently lectured at major electronic and satellite conventions, including CES and NAB shows in Las Vegas, Trebas Institute in Toronto and Blackbird Academy in Nashville. Bob recorded four albums as a musician such as Meet Me in St. Louis and Heil Plays Hammond, and also published five books on music and sound technology including Professional Drawbar Tips for the Hammond Organ, Practical Guide for Concert Sound, The 10 meter FM handbook, Heil Ham Radio Handbook, Practical Guide for Concert Sound – Volume 2, and part of the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Oral History Library.
In the late 1980s, Heil Sound entered the home theater movement becoming popular in the United States. His company became one of the first to design Custom Home theater systems with over 3,000 systems installed by 2010. Heil installed the very first DSS System, which he placed at the St. Louis office of Bob Costas. He was also on the original test team for the RCA DirecTV dish system and became one of the largest RCA dealers in the world.
In the early 2000s, following a request from Bob’s longtime friend Joe Walsh to develop a new vocal microphone, Bob re-entered the pro sound industry and introduced a new line of professional microphones and accessories, which Heil Sound continues to manufacture today. Countless Grammy-winning artists, creators, broadcasters, podcasters, sound engineers, and sound professionals continue to be influenced by Bob’s work and products.
Bob won a number of awards and honors. He was the “International Amateur Radio Operator of the Year” in 1982, an award which had been held by Barry Goldwater the year before. He was later awarded the 1989 “USA Satellite Dealer of the Year” by the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association in Las Vegas. In 1995, he received the very first “Live Sound Pioneer Award” at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in San Francisco. In 2007, Bob received the Audio Innovator Parnelli Award. In 2014, Bob was awarded an Honorary Doctoral Degree in Music and Technology from the University of Missouri.
In his retired years, Bob remained active in the amateur radio community by giving presentations to ham radio clubs all across the world. Bob also continued to play the Wurlitzer Organ at the Fabulous Fox Theatre and enjoyed spending time with Gracie, his malshi.
Bob was a member of Belleville Union United Methodist Church, a 50-year member of Marissa Lodge #881 AF and AM, and a 50-year member of Ainad Shrine.
His final act was one of service to others, donating his body to Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to Shriners Children’s St. Louis or the ARRL’s (American Radio Relay League) Education & Technology Fund, benefiting the ARRL’s education initiatives in schools.
A private family service will be held in his memory.