Enrique Renard remembers the Englishman who became one of the ‘Greats’ of American Light Music
A BUNCH OF HOLIDAYS – THE DAVID ROSE STORY
It was in 1942, the year the USA had just entered World War II, that a totally unknown young jazz pianist brought to RCA producers a few light pieces he had composed. He played them in the piano, but explained that his intention was to orchestrate and record them with a full ensemble, including strings.
The A & R people at RCA must have been impressed with what they heard, because a session was arranged to record Holiday for Strings, Dance of the Spanish Onion, Our Waltz and One Love. As everyone knows, recording techniques of those days were very far from what we hear today, or even from what we heard in the fifties, where the studios’ technological jump was enormous. However, and whoever that recording engineer was at RCA, he came with the idea of adding echo effect to the sound by slightly retarding the signal. The result was a novelty sound that added life to the dull sound recordings of the period under the primitive technology available. Nothing of the sort had ever been heard before in popular light music, not even in classical recordings. Everyone was impressed, and David Rose’s illustrious musical career was launched then and there.
Columbia Records, always a pioneer in sound achievement under men like Goddard Lieberson during the 40s, had a remarkable recording studio called Liederkranz Hall on 115th E. 58th St. in Manhattan, NY, famed by its excellent acoustics. By the late 30s and early 40s Andre Kostelanetz used to record in that studio using musicians from the NY Philharmonic playing arrangements from popular tunes as part of the Kostelanetz effort to acquaint the average American public with symphonic orchestral sounds. His material was pop, but his arrangements were symphonic in that he used an 80 piece orchestra with a huge string section. He openly achieved his purpose… in the east coast, that is. In the west coast the first one to attract attention in that direction was David Rose.
At the time, swing was in full blast in the USA spearheaded by Benny Goodman and his Swing Band, but the times, with all that nostalgic effect on wives and fiancées with their men overseas fighting a tough war, popularized sentimental music. Hence the enormous success of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and that of a young skinny singer called Frank Sinatra. The romantic, sentimental quality of David Rose’s tunes and string arrangements, evident even in his faster pieces like My Dog has Fleas (1944), fit perfectly the mood of the times. But it was Holiday for Strings, a million seller, that brought him into public consciousness. Given which, he wrote several other "Holidays": Holiday for Flutes, Holiday for Trombones, Autumn Holiday, Blue Holiday, etc. (An aunt of mine who was a pianist, remarked after hearing Holiday for Strings: "It’s called ‘holiday’ for strings but the only thing you hear in it is strings!). Tune titles aside, the thing is Rose can and should be credited with having started Light Music in the western USA.
David Rose was in fact British, born in London, June 15th, 1910. He was only 4 when his family migrated to the USA and settled in Chicago. By age 16 he was receiving musical training at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and starting to play piano professionally. His first contract was with the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra, but someone at NBC Radio caught his sound and in 1936 he was hired as a pianist-arranger by the network. By 1938 he was hired by the Mutual Broadcasting Service, in Hollywood, where he set up an orchestra for that network. There he met singer/comedian Martha Raye and married her. He provided the arrangement for her only hit, a song with a telling title:Melancholy Mood. He divorced Raye in 1941.
The US musical scene suffered a crippling blow through a strike by the Musicians Union that lasted more than two years. But through that time, Holiday for Strings, recorded shortly before the strike, became a huge hit. The 78 carried Poinciana on the other side with a slow, sensual arrangement that contributed to the success of the single. He then did for RCA a set of Cole Porter tunes masterfully arranged and featuring the same echo chamber sound that so distinguished his output. Those 78s were transposed into 45 rpms in a box set issued in the early 50’s, when 45s became popular, and later into LP. Both sets are almost impossible to find. He recorded Holiday for Strings, his signature song that sold millions worldwide, about six times, including an extended concert version he did in 1955 for a long forgotten MGM movie called "Unfinished Dance" but released on an LP called "David Rose plays David Rose", MGM E-3748, long out of print.
But it was not only the sound per se that made his music sound "different". It was the way he arranged. Steeped in jazz since his early youth, he phrased the strings using jazz chords and tempos, enlarging and sometimes bending phrases and scoring the strings in several voices so as to achieve a sort of uniform sound particularly pleasant to hear and very apt in establishing a romantic atmosphere. Many of my generation of those days felt a debt of gratitude towards David Rose and his music. Our seductive efforts were amply rewarded when we placed a Rose 78 rpm record on the turntable. The problem was one had to get up too often to change the record, thus spoiling things to some extent…
In 1941 Rose married Judy Garland, of all people! That an extraordinary ballad singer and the best ballad arranger in the business would never record together during the three years their marriage lasted is something difficult to explain. There were probably contractual situations that made it impossible, but they would have been a perfect match. Garland’s heartfelt style coupled with the Rose strings would have been something difficult to forget. But that perfect matching did not extend to their marriage. They were divorced in 1945.
Meanwhile, Rose’s career and fame continued to climb. He was busily arranging for movies and he had his own radio show California Melodies. For that one he wrote one of his well known tunes of that same name. The original, seductive way in which he arranged old songs making them sound new and different, attracted MGM executives, and he was offered a contract to write music for movies and record for the label. At MGM, however, the main preoccupation was with movies, and Rose ended up scoring over 36 of these! Aware of his talent and his commercial appeal, MGM gave him the opportunity to arrange and record several LPs from American standards by Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Moose Charlap and others, plus his own compositions including re-recordings of the tunes he had done for RCA, all in a mood, seductive but vital style that sold very well. Above all, Rose and his engineers invariably aimed for the best in sound and his talent, added to the lilting sound of his arrangements, brought him a measure of popularity, especially amongst advertisers and broadcasters. Whenever they wanted something catchy for the public’s ear, they would use excerpts of David Rose tunes. A survey done around 1963 showed that at every minute of every day at least one radio station in the USA was playing a David Rose selection! And his music was being used as theme songs for 22 different TV shows!
But despite all his musical talent and his success, few people would imagine that his first love was notmusic. It was trains, all sorts of trains! More than everything he wanted to be a railroad engineer! He owned what was probably one of the largest collections of miniature trains in the world, and he had a scale railroad track surrounding his estate in Sherman Oaks, California, with a train on it, of course.
With his career well launched and his talent in huge demand from television shows as successful asThe Red Skelton Show, Bonanza, the High Chaparral, The Bob Hope Show, The Jack Benny Show, etc., plus several movies and new LPs, he found time to marry once more, this time to Conover model and actress Betty Bigelow, with whom he had two daughters, Melanie and Angie.
By the mid fifties, MGM engineers Phil Ramone and Don Frey engineered Rose’s tour-de-force album in keeping with his permanent fascination with state-of-the-art recording technology: 21 Channel Sound. This was one of the first recording efforts done on a multi channel basis, and the results were spectacular by any means. Especially a Duke Ellington piece called In a Sentimental Mood, and another by Bishop & Jenkins, Blue Prelude, represent two of the most extraordinary arrangements of tunes ever recorded in Light Music. For the occasion Rose used an orchestra comprised of 58 musicians (30 strings: 20 violins, 5 violas and 5 celli, plus percussion, reeds and brass), and the post mix phase (a novelty those days) was a painstaking process by him and his engineers. An electronic gimmick was also used which, in my view at least, detracts from the brilliance of the record: the music sweeps from one speaker to another, left to right and right to left. I feel there was no need for this in an album where stereo separation was splendidly achieved. Still, later on Ray Martin did likewise with a couple of LPs recorded for RCA in the early sixties in the USA.
Then, when it was expected his popularity would wane under the growing impact of rock-n’-roll, MGM paired him with another talent: Andre Previn, then in his 30s. They recorded a set of tunes for an LP titled Like Young. It was so successful they were asked to do an encore: Like Blue. Previn was an excellent jazz pianist and arranger, and Rose used only a string orchestra for the sessions. Both albums stand as a shining example of light music with a jazz feeling. Shortly after, something more unexpected came up. The writer has never found anyone who can explain why Rose, a master of mood music, wrote The Stripper, a hoochi-coochi strip-tease song if there ever was one! But the fact is that the thing shot up to the top of the charts in the USA and even today there are people who know and remember Rose only for that song! Public taste is sometimes suspect. But we all know that. The success was of such magnitude, Rose recorded The Stripper a whole LP album of standards arranged in that style, and then a second one, More Music of The Stripper, to satisfy the demand!Well, one must admit the man had versatility. He probably wrote the song as a lark, without imagining it would become a hit.
It is a fact that great musicians, especially great arrangers, will be imitated. Well… let’s say that some will be "influenced" by them. It is not merely a question of imitating that which sells well, but also of being inspired by originality borne in genuine talent and taste. Humoresque, a song written by Anton Dvorak, the great classical composer, was classified by my ears as one of the most trite and boring things they ever heard. And when I saw the song included in an RCA LP LPT 1011 (the first compilation of 78s by Rose by the label transposed into 33⅓ rpm.) I couldn’t believe my eyes! There was nothing anyone could do for that regrettable song! I surmised. Boy, was I wrong! Rose picked up the slow, narcotic main theme, changed it into a fast tempo played by pizzicato strings, orchestrating the central motive in the manner of that of his Dance of the Spanish Onion, adding a romantic twist to it, and a dull song picked up life and beauty. That requires imagination, an outstanding feature in David Rose’s musical talent. It was inevitable that he would be copied. And he was.
By the early 50s when he had scored well with some mood albums, he started to receive phone calls where all he heard was his own recordings being played by the caller. This went on for quite a while and he said it drove him nuts. He just couldn’t figure out who would do such a weird thing. Suddenly, in one of the calls a familiar voice came in. "This is Jackie Gleason, Dave… How are ya!... I just figured I told you we’ve been listening to your records. They sound wonderful…"
Gleason was known more as a comedian than a musician. He had never studied theory, to begin with, and couldn’t read music. He was a good bass player though (he can be spotted as the bass player in the Glenn Miller Orchestra Wives movie -1942). The fact is he was a natural musician and also a shrewd businessman, as we shall see. Fascinated with the Rose mood sound, he decided to do something similar. He tried to sell the idea to Mitch Miller, A&R man for Columbia those days. Miller laughed at it. "Strings and a trumpet? Are you crazy? I have shelves full of Harry James stock I cannot sell! Take a walk!" Gleason did, and that was a major faux pas by Miller, similar to the one he took with Sinatra before. Gleason went into hock, got together with arrangers George Williams and Dick Jones and made them listen to David Rose. "I want it to sound like that…" he explained to them, "and I got Bobby Hackett to do the trumpet part". The thing was Hackett played cornet, that smaller kind of trumpet with the conic tubing that mellows the sound and makes it languid and intimate. In short, ideal for Gleason’s concept. Gleason went ahead and recorded a few tunes. Upon hearing them, the Capitol A&R people got interested and released the album Music for Lovers Only. It was a smash hit, worldwide. It sold millions but it was a bad imitation of David Rose.
The thing was, however, that Rose included variety in his arrangements and a wide selection of different material. Tempos, colorings, fast and slow percussion and tone alternated brilliantly in his records. But Gleason understood that for wide appeal he had to play the melody straight. Average people simply did not understand nor musically relate to anything else. Add a romantic tone to it, and you got it made, he figured. He recorded over thirty "for lovers" albums, made millions, and he did change orchestration, sometimes even omitting strings (his best work, I think), but always playing the melody, and he got to be better known than Rose himself, who unwittingly gave him the idea.
The 60s were the last successful decade for David Rose. By then he recorded again many of his first hit compositions, using now the better technology available. By 1970 he recorded a couple of albums in London for Polydor, Portrait and The Very Thought of You, the latter including one of the best instrumental versions of the Ray Noble standard that I have ever heard. There is no indication of any other recordings after those.
I met David Rose at Epcot Center, in Disneyworld, Orlando, Florida, in 1985. He had been invited to do a few concerts with the local orchestra, a relatively small group (no more than 12 or so strings) that could not fully show his brilliance as an arranger. I found him to be a person who did not take himself seriously, humorous and funny. The only sad note came when he was asked why he wasn’t recording any more. There was a tone of sadness and frustration in his answer: "I don’t play rock n’ roll", he said. He was 75 at that moment, but one could sense he was still young inwardly. He was physically short, but a giant in talent. And his influence in all light music arrangers, including British composer/ arrangers such as Melachrino, Ray Martin, Stanley Black (the mood albums), William Hill-Bowen, Malcolm Lockyer, etc., was undeniable.
The distinctive Rose sound reached a lot of people, but it was difficult for me to determine clearly my predilection for it above all other light music composers. Added to his taste and brilliance there was another factor I could never pinpoint, but that attracted me. Then, by 1973, while I was living in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a while, I was playing one of his records and a neighbor heard and came to knock at my door. He introduced himself: "My name is Tom Schaeffer, and I am a professor at the local university here, and would you mind telling me what is it that you are playing? It sounds great". I said, "That’s David Rose, and if you wish to come in and listen please feel free. He did, and as we listened, he turned to me and asked me if I had a song called June in January arranged by Rose. I said I did and I played it for him. And when the strings were picking up the main theme with the typical full sound Rose got from them, Tom turned to me and said: "You know, Enrique, the thing with David Rose is that his was always such a happy sound! I smiled in full agreement and thanked him for identifying the main reason why I liked David Rose above almost all others: his music made me happy! It conveyed a bubbly feeling of happiness! And $3 for an LP was an insignificant price to pay for it. I didn’t pay only for the beauty of his compositions and arrangements. Unwittingly, I was also paying for happiness.
Davis Rose died in Burbank, California, on 23 August, 1990, leaving behind not only the David Rose Foundation he set up in the 1960s, but a splendid collection of recorded music. His talented output was honored with six gold records and 22 Grammys. Not bad for a British-born kid who would have preferred to be a railroad engineer. Happily, he went the way of music to our benefit and listening pleasure.
This article appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ December 2005.