The Great Ones Compared by Enrique Renard
THE GREAT ONES COMPARED
By Enrique Renard
I remember distinctly being 14 years old, in 1946, when I first heard Holiday for Strings in my native Chile. The reason that prompts such remembrance has to do with the particular sound of the recording. Nothing of the sort existed in a musical genre just starting to surge forth in those days of very limited recording technological resources. Clearly, to capture the ear of radio listeners what is required is a sonority way beyond that which sound engineers were able to produce then. Hence arranger-composer David Rose and the RCA engineers and producers came up with a sound that, keeping proportions, was not that different from what we heard years later, at least in terms of sonority if not fidelity. The year was 1942. That was the year Holiday For Strings was recorded for the first time.
Listening to recordings done by some of the big bands in 1938, for example, the sound is unbearably flat and pretty dead. The available mikes ignored the low register of the string bass and the treble of brass cymbals. That took away half of the sonority of the band, and if that was bad, recording strings with some fidelity was practically impossible. In the USA RCA and Columbia Records had pretty good sound engineers, and one of them came up with the idea of retarding the sound signal slightly to achieve an aural effect that would resemble an echo chamber. These things usually happen by accident, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it were found that such was the accidental result of someone manipulating the primitive electronics of the period. Whatever the reason, the sound that came out with Holiday For Strings plus a couple of other numbers recorded simultaneously by the Rose orchestra, represented a novelty, a new sound and a very attractive one at that. The record sold hundreds of thousands worldwide, but then a disastrous musicians strike took place in the USA that lasted over two years, and Rose could not continue to record, and neither did anyone else that used musicians. For a while top singers such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were accompanied only by a choir.
However, a new trend had been launched and by then Andre Kostelanetz was recording with similarly sonorous effects in the US east coast around 1941/42. Kostelanetz recorded for Columbia at Liederkrantz Hall, in New York City, a place with remarkable acoustics, and he used musicians from the New York Philharmonic. By 1945 his sales output was impressive, and Columbia gave him a free hand to do as he wished. Kosty was a remarkable musician with a range that went from classic baroque to jazz. Although he was also a splendid arranger, the scope of his activities forced him to use other arrangers. But, as correctly surmised by David Ades, and similarly to other famous orchestra leaders, arrangements done by his collaborators were supervised by him so as to conform to his well recognized sound and style. Besides, on top of having good arrangers and the best musicians, Kostelanetz could call upon as many musicians as he wanted to, regardless cost. It is no wonder, therefore, that he was able to produce such masterful recordings of Light Music covering practically the whole American song book issued from the likes of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Vincent Youmans and other remarkable American, British and European composers.
Kostelanetz understood popular tastes. He realized that there were some sophisticated people out there who could appreciate a fine way of voicing the strings, for instance. He also understood that such people were in minority and that in order to reach massive audiences and sales he had to play close to the melody. And he did, usually adding to it tempos that allowed dancing to the music! Hence he got not only the listeners, but the dancers and their shindigs as well! Pretty clever, but his was not only a commercial effort. He wanted to get the American public acquainted with symphonic structures, with the sound of a symphonic orchestra, and what better way to do it than playing popular songs (mostly Tin Pan Alley and Broadway melodies) with a symphonic orchestra! It is reasonable to assume he openly achieved his purpose, since by 1950 he had sold over 40 million records worldwide. His appeal was indeed universal.
Then RCA, aware of Columbia’s success with this type of music, hired Morton Gould, classified by some experts as a musical genius by the age of 6. Now Gould was quite another story in that his approach to popular standards by the aforementioned composers was entirely different. He used the jazz approach that consists of stating the theme of a song by sticking to the melody and then "going somewhere else", as he was fond of saying. His variations were invariably of impeccable taste and, in my view at least, they enriched whatever material he was using, but they were clearly for more sophisticated ears than those of the majority who listened and bought Light Music records. Still, and surprisingly, his stuff sold well, though not as well as Kostelanetz. He delved pretty much into classical music, and used the same musicians used by Kostelanetz in New York, where he too recorded.
Both had a distinctive sound. No one has ever duplicated the Kostelanetz string sound of that period. And Gould’s brass was unmistakable. It was low, even ominous at times, when he blended trombones and French horns with remarkable effectiveness. Kostelanetz never had that. Let’s take as an example the recordings both made of a Porter standard: Night and Day.
Kostelanetz first recorded the song in January, 1942 (at present it can be heard in a CD called The Kostelanetz Touch on the label LIVING ERA, CD AJA 5422, issued in England) and it is a gorgeous arrangement (with echo sound, of course). Later on, in 1953, he recorded another version under much better technology (though not stereo yet) considered by many as an archetypal arrangement that influenced many arrangers of the period. More or less by the same year RCA issued the Morton Gould version, without question way more "symphonic" than the two Kostelanetz versions (the first one by Kosty himself and the second by one of his most qualified arrangers, Carrol Huxley). Both the latter version and that of Gould couldn’t be more different, yet they are both masterful.
All this material was issued on 78 rpm shellac records. LPs appeared around 1949 and both Columbia and RCA quickly transposed the 78s into 12 song LPs, which gave a greater impulse to Light Music, expanding the public’s knowledge about it and increasing sales. Anyone who had a record player by the late 40s or early 50s knew about the Andre Kostelanetz Orchestra, the Morton Gould Orchestra, the Percy Faith Orchestra, etc. What few people knew was that none of these remarkable musicians had an orchestra of their own! They all used the same musicians provided by the contractors who supplied them. In the case of the above named, they all worked with musicians from the New York Philharmonic.
That most composers and arrangers of Light Music were heavily influenced by jazz and blues cannot be disputed. Kostelanetz was an excellent jazz pianist, and so was Morton Gould. David Rose started as a jazz pianist, and most of his arrangements have jazz phrasing in them. What Rose had in common with Kostelanetz was his string sound, not because he sounded like Kostelanetz (which he didn’t) but because like Kostelanetz he was widely imitated but never equalled. Aware of the lush effect that Rose’s string writing projected in his mood numbers and the potential for public interest in it, Jackie Gleason, who never learned music theory but was a natural musician, hired arrangers such as Pete King and George Williams to imitate Rose’s string sound, all with the bending of those long legato phrasings and voicings and using a languid cornet played by Bobby Hackett. Capitol smelled money in it and they were right. Gleason and the label made millions on those LPs, but again, because he played the melody straight. Most of Gleason’s string albums are mediocre and repetitive, but as he himself stated: "What we have here is stick-to-the-melody pure vanilla…" clearly giving to understand he wasn’t interested in interesting music. He was interested in sales, and that he achieved most effectively. And Rose who inspired in him the idea, never achieved Gleason’s fame nor his financial success. He did pretty well for himself, but keeping his integrity and his belief in his music. Ironically, he became better known worldwide for his recording of "The Stripper", a song far removed from his own style and musical character.
And speaking of David Rose, I was touched by Donald Southwell’s interesting short article in JIM 167 about his acquaintance with Dave during a flight from Los Angeles to London in 1975 wherein he was informed by the master of strings himself on the reasons why he wrote The Stripper. I’m indeed grateful to Donald for clarifying matters for me with an explanation by Rose himself that appears plausible. There are of course other slightly different versions of the occurrence, like the one that states that Rose had recorded a single that required another song for the other side of the disc, and Dave’s producer slapped The Stripper on it. It is a well known fact that the commercial success of a record largely depends on disc jockeys playing it repeatedly. One of those DJs apparently liked The Stripper more than the other side of the single, and kept playing it. It suddenly took off, as it usually happens with that kind of superficial, meaningless, syncopated music used for stripping! No wonder Dave took years to finally come around and release it and that after a lot of pressure from his producers. In my article on David Rose on JIM 166 I do state that he probably wrote the song as a lark, and I’m amazed to read he used those exact words when referring the story to Mr. Southwell.
I must confess my envy about Donald’s precious opportunity to meet David Rose in a situation where he could talk to him at leisure. What a marvellous thing that was! I met Dave personally at Epcot Center, in Disney World, Florida in 1985. It was a brief encounter as he was walking through the open amphitheater towards the orchestra stage accompanied by the local orchestra director, so I could only briefly chat with him and wish him well after I mustered the courage to approach him and shake hands with him. But I too found him personable and possessing a great sense of humor. I was so sorry I could not a have a more extended moment with him, and I can well share Mr. Southwell’s delight at his meeting with someone who, through the years since I was a kid, had been, and continue to be, my favourite musician.
In comparing talented musicians of Light Music, it is impossible to neglect the British simply because their contribution to the genre is as enormous as it is beautiful. Robert Farnon was not British (except maybe by adoption), but comparisons cannot be applied to him. He was, in the words of Frank Sinatra, "the Guv’nor". There was no one quite like him and plenty has been said about him that makes it unnecessary to repeat here. Quite simply put, he was the best! But then came a host of others. By 1953 we had in Chile the arrival of The Melachrino Strings. I remember listening on the radio, around 1948, "Winter Sunshine" and "There’s a Tavern in Town", by the Melachrino orchestra, and loving them. Unfortunately, those records were not commercially distributed, and I couldn’t buy them. Stations got them by means of record exchanges with the BBC in London. Those arrangements included more than strings, though. Anyway, when RCA issued the Melachrino Strings in 45 rpm format later in 53’, they were a hit, and I did buy the records.
I had also been listening through the same BBC records played by radio stations the Ray Martin Orchestra, and it immediately caught my ear. There was something in the way Martin wrote strings that resembled David Rose, not so much in texture but rather in concept, especially in the mood numbers, and I was taken by it. In 1948 I heard an arrangement by Martin of a Mexican song by composer Manuel Ponce called Estrellita (Little Star). Around the same time MGM released the Rose version and I was amazed at the similarity in concept and sound. One would assume that someone plagiarized someone there. But we know better, don’t we? Neither Martin nor Rose needed to plagiarize anyone. The Rose version was issued in Chile on a 78 that had Intermezzo on the other side, and the latter arrangement does not resemble at all Martin’s arrangement of the song. I was able to acquire the MGM 78, but the Martin version of Estrellita I never heard again. In 1954, however, and to my delight, Columbia issued a 10 inch LP featuring Ray Martin arrangements! (most can be found now in a CD titled "Unforgettable, and Other Great Melodies", issued by EMI in Britain, and also a couple of CDs titled "Music in the Manner of Ray Martin", issued by Vocalion, CDLK 4105 and CDLK 4119, but no Estrellita on them, regrettably).
Being a Rose fan, I always found a sort of musical closeness between both composers. But I don’t even know if they ever met each other personally. Other 78s by Martin were also issued in my country those days, and one truly fascinated me: The Golden Trumpet, solo trumpet by Eddie Calvert (who had an incredible tone) with strings arranged by Ray Martin. It is a marvellous piece, and one cannot but wonder why both never recorded an LP together that would have been a smash hit. It would have been something vastly superior to what Jackie Gleason was doing in those days with great commercial success.
Martin’s version of Unforgettable, the Irving Gordon piece made into a hit by Nat King Cole is, to me at least, the best orchestral arrangement ever done of the song. Surprisingly very few other orchestras recorded it.
It appears that Martin was a busy body. Among other things, he became A & R man for the Columbia label in Britain, and his recording possibilities diminished probably due to lack of time. When he migrated to the USA under a contract by RCA in 1957, he recorded two LPs that showed great versatility, but that excluded mood numbers: Dynamica and Excitement, Inc. He had become known to USA listeners through a mood album that sold very well there: Rainy Night in London, recorded in London for Capitol and issued by EMI in Britain in 1956. What he did for RCA was excellent but entirely different and somewhat unusual, and commercial success wasn’t there. Eventually, he returned to Europe and recorded six LPs for Polydor, in France. To my mind, Ray Martin hit his peak in 1957 when he scored the music of a movie called It’s Great to be Young, which included a song called You Are my First Love, winner of the Ivor Novello Award and eventually recorded by Nat King Cole.
Stanley Black and Philip Green were excellent arranger/composers, but they never achieved a sound that was immediately recognizable, as did Melachrino, for instance. They probably weren’t interested in that. But Peter Yorke was another story. I cannot agree with a writer in JIM 164 that described his arrangements as "pile driving". Despite being a great arranger and musician, it is true that Yorke cannot be compared favourably with Robert Farnon. But then no one can, really. However, he had in his outfit someone Farnon didn’t have: Freddie Gardner playing alto sax. I remember one occasion in 1951 when a radio station was playing Yorke’ version of These Foolish Things, my father, who knew NOTHING about music and who cared even less about it, stopped dead at the sound Gardner got from his horn and asked me: "Who is that!..." There was something glorious about Gardner’s tone, a sound that fascinated even Duke Ellington! And Yorke came up with a device that made the sound of his outfit instantly recognizable: four clarinets playing in harmony with Freddie’s alto to produce a transparent, sweet, surging sound that conceptually resembled Glenn Miller’s reed sound. Tragically, Gardner’s death at age 39 deprived the orchestra of its distinctive sound, and it was never the same again. Still, what a joy it is to listen to those records by the Peter Yorke Orchestra with Freddie Gardner playing alto.
And one cannot mention British arrangers/composers without mentioning two unsung heroes: Malcolm Lockyer and William Hill-Bowen. Lockyer was, aside from Farnon, the only arranger who could make strings swing. His musical sense with respect to big bands was unequalled and his work with the Knightsbridge Strings is brilliant.
Hill-Bowen, on the other hand, was responsible for the sound of the Melachrino Strings that appeared only when he started arranging for George Melachrino. Hence it is only fair to state that he was responsible for Melachrino’s success, although George had already made quite a name for himself leaning on his considerable talent only.
It is well understood that music is a matter of personal taste, and what appears great to some is not that great to others. In the particular case of Light Music, tastes on the different orchestras and their leaders and arrangers vary widely, but some of those musicians seem to transcend the relativities of personal taste. A survey done around 1963 about the David Rose Orchestra, for instance, showed that every minute of every day at least one radio station in the USA was playing a David Rose selection. There was something about his sound that was incredibly catchy and beautiful, and his music was being used in 22 different television shows. Ditto for Robert Farnon. Every time I play one of his records for someone they are instantly fascinated, even when people are not particularly interested in Light Orchestral Music. One thing is clear, though: to all these musicians who graced airwaves and recording studios with their talent and sensitivity during the 40s, 50s and early 60s, we owe a debt of gratitude. They made the world a better, gentler, more musical place for all of humanity, and they shall not be forgotten.
This article first appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ June 2006.