Billy May’s Orchestra
Analysed by Robert Walton
Right in the centre of a collage created by my wife of my personal and professional life, is a photograph of me holding a 10 inch 1950’s 78rpm disc of Billy May’s Rose-Marie. This was around the time the long playing disc first saw the light of day. It represented one of the first highly technical big band recordings on a 78, standing out as something really special. Capitol Record’s engineers had somehow managed to put all that brass and saxophones on to a simple 78, sounding a million miles from the 1940s. It was as if a brand new era had emerged. In fact it almost gave the impression of stereo on a 78. One wonders had the new 78 technology arrived earlier in the previous decade, would Stan Kenton have benefited?
When I was working in radio at Station 1ZB Auckland in 1955, there was a strict policy of the sort of music to be selected for the morning Breakfast Session. Nothing too noisy or jazzy was permitted. Music of a calm and cheerful mood was the order of the day, like Powder Your Face with Sunshine, Manhattan Playboy, or Dear Hearts and Gentle People. One morning (you’ve guessed it) a record planner had inexplicably included Rose-Marie in the mix. By the time the Head of Programmes and Station Manager arrived at the beautiful Art Deco building for work, they were absolutely apoplectic. The planner almost lost his job! That was the only time Billy made the Breakfast Session! Great dance music it certainly was but more suitable for late night consumption.
Billy May was perhaps the most versatile arranger of them all. An early outstanding chart was Carnival by two Harrys: composer Warren and trumpeter James. Then there were those brilliant scores for the Sparky Children’s Series. But May is best remembered for his glissing unison saxes, reviving Jimmy Lunceford’s lightly swinging style. Sometimes May was more “Nelson Riddle” than Riddle with Autumn in New York and Moonlight in Vermont for Frank Sinatra. However, simple tunes like Friml’s 1924 Rose-Marie proved to be ideal for May’s style, in fact even in the 21st Century that style is still the standard sound for any big band.
The opening trumpets with some perfectly placed piano comping is as fresh today as it was then. The slurping saxes take a turn at the tune, but when the brass return for the finale the orchestra erupts into a virtual volcano. On the San Andreas Big Band Fault Line, May’s outburst will remain etched on the memory forever!
Billy May “Naughty Operetta” EMI 4 98836 2
Sweet And Lovely
(Gus Arnheim, Harry Tobias and Jules Lemare)
Robert Farnon’s arrangement analysed by Robert Walton
Robert Farnon had the unique ability to bring out the best in a song by always treating it with the utmost respect in terms of its original style, by adding just the right amount of modernism and freshness. In other words he was guided intuitively by his byword: “taste”. At the same time he was constantly ahead of the game with his original and daring orchestrations. Even now in the 21st century they still sound advanced.
The utter simplicity of the start of Sweet and Lovely, like one of his own light orchestral miniatures, belies the fact that from thousands of musical ideas going around in his head, he only selected sounds that were totally appropriate for the current job in hand. In his own world he was a self-disciplinarian knowing instinctively how far to go. He was never tempted to stray too far into foreign territory. Despite that, Farnon constantly relished discovering new things to say in his “travels into tunes”. It was probably the unusual harmony that first attracted him to this early ballad.
This 1931 ditty was the “sweet and lovely” theme song of Gus Arnheim’s Orchestra. The first recording was by his orchestra featuring vocalist Donald Novis but it was Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo who brought it to a wider audience.
After that haunting introduction, lightly swinging woodwind go straight into Sweet and Lovely for a double whammy of song and arrangement providing a romantic slow foxtrot with some decorative glockenspiel. A harp heralds the first appearance of the famous Farnon fiddles (“Who would want a sweeter surprise”). Staying with the strings a gentle cutting oboe continues the tune.
Then a muted trumpet advises that the bridge is ready for crossing with the saxes making the first move towards a beautifully controlled orchestral climax.
Back to the tune as thin-sounding ethereal violins on the same note shoot up high with the help of harmonics to have a commanding view over the proceedings. Frolicking flutes make themselves felt in no uncertain terms. Then another reminder of that warm Farnon harmony. The brass is back with the strings making a typically gorgeous key change like no one else in the business. The saxes are heard again and gradually the orchestra returns with the brass.
By now it becomes all too clear that Farnon’s arrangement of Sweet and Lovely is an excellent example of a series of thrilling climaxes. The orchestra sounds completely relaxed as it tags along for the ride, enjoying the many “swells” which abound. Strings, oboe and a violin playing the title in atonal style are parachuted into the coda mix. Talking of keyless music, Robert Farnon’s charts are famous for teetering on the edge of atonality, like a high wire act. That’s why his arrangements have an air of mystery and “what’s he going to do next?” about them. In retrospect, these early popular standards have proved to be perfect vehicles for Farnon’s inventiveness.
(Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II)
Analysed by Robert Walton
Whenever I’m asked to name one of my favourite songs in that largely neglected period, the Golden Era of Popular Music between 1920 - 1960, without hesitation my reply is always The Folks Who Live on the Hill sung by Peggy Lee. But as you’ll find out there’s a heck of a lot more packed into just one short track. For some reason the location in my imagination has always been the Tauranga region of New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty - a truly rural spot a few miles inland from the mighty Pacific Ocean. What a setting and what a singer! So much so, I simply can’t wait to proceed with my analysis. Before that though I must tell you the song was composed in 1937 and first sung in the film “High, Wide and Handsome” by Irene Dunne. Twenty years later in 1957, Capitol Records revived it for surely what must be the definitive version, which is not surprising with all the talent involved.
This Mahler-inspired hymn-like miniature miracle begins with strings and harp creeping in to create one of the most beautiful feelgood atmospheres ever heard. The whole thing is cradled by Nelson Riddle’s brilliant score. And as if that isn’t enough, a solo trumpet pops up proclaiming something of great importance is about to be announced. Then a haunting oboe continues this short introduction via more trumpet with an added horn bringing the section to a close. (It reminds one of Western movie music).
Husky-voiced Peggy Lee now delivers Hammerstein’s glorious lyric making a very ordinary scenario quite special, with Kern’s equally gorgeous melody. Plan A, building a home on a hill has overtones of the TV series “Grand Designs”. The 43 bar tune including a bridge of 6 bars might be unusual but the overwhelming message is one of complete normality. Peggy sings about two people falling in love, bringing up kids and refers to many things families experience during one’s life. Every time she mentions the title, that trumpet joins her and goose pimples magically appear. And she insists on being called “folks”. No problem. We will oblige. It’s more like a prayer of thanks and hope for the future.
Oh yes, I almost forgot one small detail. Frank Sinatra waved the baton over the whole affair! At this difficult time of Covid and Climate Change, it was like a breath of fresh air!
By Robert Walton
It may seem obvious but the best test for a voice, first and foremost, is the sound it produces. Nothing else. If you love the resonance a vocalist can produce, a load of gobbledygook will tell you more about the artist than all the phrasing and lyrics a wordsmith can conjure up.
In the case of Sarah Vaughan just imagine a thorough free range wallow on the instrument she was born with (Newark, New Jersey 1924) and you have the nearest thing to an opera singer in jazz. To an outsider her basic style, like Frank Sinatra’s, might be misinterpreted as overdoing the sentimental bit, like suffering. The older generation totally rejected that 1940s tendency of sounding miserable. This might have been slight exaggeration but there’s an element of truth in it. Of course “anything goes” is the byword when studying a voice of Vaughan’s calibre. The possibilities are endless. Scales, arpeggios, ducking and diving, improvising, in fact everything. And Vaughan who was more than capable of exercising the vocal chords just like a trapeze artist took risks, never missing a trick.
And talking of her own personal technology like Italian singers and the general public of that country, she ends words, especially the high long ones, with a clear cut-off point echoing the sheer power generated just to get the note airborne. She may have been a mistress of jazz but she sang some of the old fashioned ballads like a trooper. Because, one of my Lanza favourites, is given a fabulous treatment and has the listener guessing, will she go for the final high note? She does and it comes off magnificently. And keeping us aware of Climate Change, Oscar Rasbach’s ballad Trees showing off her contralto ability is the best female version I know. I only wish she had tried some Puccini. On the other hand she could swing like mad and her pitch was absolutely perfect. Wrap your Troubles in Dreams is an excellent example of relaxed swing with a Dave Pell-like small group. A good up-tempo standard with a conventional big band is This Can’t be Love. She really was the complete all rounder. I don’t think even the great Jo Stafford had the richness and control.
And while we’re on the subject of Stafford, her duets with Gordon MacRae are legendary and noted for their soft-hued matching. Sarah Vaughan’s partner was Billy Eckstine who again blended perfectly with her.
When she was 7, Sarah Lois began having piano and organ lessons useful for the local church, but she soon realized singing was her major passion. Her big break came in a 1942 amateur talent contest at the Apollo Theatre with the prize of a week’s employment on the bill with none other than Ella Fitzgerald. For a jazz singer this was the ultimate dream. Earl Hines saw her, hired her and suddenly she was singing with Charlie Parker, Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie which brought her to bebop.
In her heyday she regularly topped all the jazz charts like Downbeat Magazine and was generally considered the best in her field. Consequently she was imitated by many other vocalists, but very few equaled her. Just to hear that unique vibrato was one of life’s musical treats.
So far in this article, Vaughan’s tracks have been taken from an EMI Music for Pleasure album titled “20 Jazz Classics” MFP 6160. But there is still one aspect of her singing we haven’t yet tackled......sensitivity. There really is only one album in her repertoire, which concentrates on that aspect. That’s the 12 track LP she made with Robert Farnon and the Svend Saaby Danish Choir in Copenhagen in 1963, “Vaughan with Voices”. (Mercury 20014 MCL) The way she warmed to Farnon’s beautiful arrangements is now history. One of them happened to be the arranger’s own composition How Beautiful is Night. Vaughan, Farnon and the Choir merged in a perfect threesome giving the tune a definitive outing never again achieved on disc.
So effectively two famous ladies were in town at the same time. The first, the permanent fixture of “The Little Mermaid” bronze statue displayed nearby on a rock by the Copenhagen waterside, and a visiting giant of jazz, coloratura soprano Sarah Vaughan.
Proving yet again Sarah Vaughan could easily switch from one genre to another, her finest recording was the unlikely light orchestral composition Serenata by Leroy Anderson. In the key of F, listen to the lovely chord of Fmaj 9 sung each time on the word “stand”. Only “The Divine One” could capture it quite so dramatically. Crossover artist extraordinaire!
Isle Of Innisfree
Analysed by Robert Walton
Most folk songs are the work of unknown composers or instrumentalists but because they are part of our ancient heritage many names which existed are now long forgotten. Perhaps its got something to do with having been passed on orally from generation to generation unaccompanied. They originally had a rural background before reaching towns and cities via a ‘musical’ landline.
Occasionally along comes a new song which has all the qualities of the real McCoy. Inspired by Yeats’ poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Richard Farrelly wrote the words and music of a beautifully spiritual song called The Isle of Innisfree which even though it was 1950, automatically entered the hallowed halls of the folk-song world. If ever a song deserved such an upgrade it was The Isle of Innisfree. The director of “The Quiet Man” John Ford liked it so much he included it in the opening of the film, but unbelievably neglected to mention Farrelly by name on the screen credits. At least Victor Young redressed the situation with a brilliant orchestration for the soundtrack as well as arranging Bing Crosby’s independent recording. That certainly helped with the advertising! I’m sure the ghost-like Londonderry Air hovered somewhere in the ether as Farrelly skillfully sculptured his little piece of pure magic. He got the idea for The Isle of Innisfree on a bus journey from his native Kells, County Meath to Dublin where he was a policeman.
Let’s take a closer look at the music and find out what makes this song so special. It’s important to note that never before have words and music gelled together quite so tightly. Farrelly had hit upon the perfect match. Essentially it’s a simple song in G, but the harmony has elements of ‘frozen’ dissonance at times like White Christmas. In the third bar on the first part of the word “dream(er”) there’s a momentary clash of F sharp against C but in reality the F sharp is only a passing melodic note leading on to the “er” of “dream”. The repetitive 4 quaver notation might weaken some songs, but in the case of The Isle of Innisfree was absolutely vital. Have you noticed the ditty has a very small range? It never leaves the treble clef. No big leaps to create a climax. It just doesn’t need it. One of the most natural songs ever composed, as if it wrote itself. It was ideal for Vera Lynn who recorded it, because her range was limited to an octave.
Irish songwriter, policeman and poet Richard Farrelly wrote over 200 songs and poems. No composer/lyricist (serious or light) ever came up with such a sublime song of hymnal simplicity and the irresistible call of home. Genius!
(Ellington & Parish)
Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra
Analysed By Robert Walton
When I first noticed the names of Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington, Sidney Torch, Charles Williams and the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra all together on a record, I thought I must have been seeing things! Here was one of the most influential figures in jazz in the same genre as two top English light orchestral composer/conductors as well as one of the greatest orchestras in light music. The unusual assemblage of such a list was unbelievable. You couldn’t get a more unlikely group. And to think that Ellington led the most famous jazz band of all time.
When Sidney Torch became involved with light orchestras he seemed to have given up arranging popular songs. Maybe he’d got tired of them in his organ playing days or was commissioned to concentrate on his own music. So it was an unexpected pleasure to discover him arranging an Ellington tune for the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Charles Williams. (BBC London Transcription Service). So let’s have a listen to Torch getting into the mind of a jazz musician.
If ever a melody was given the full treatment it was Sidney Torch’s 1945 arrangement of Duke Ellington’s 1933 standard Sophisticated Lady. Written in the key of A Flat, the release goes to G, but the clever bit is the way it returns to A Flat. All the orchestral ingredients of Torch’s DNA are featured, both dramatic and light. The introductory attacking strings give the piece a huge build-up merging into those familiar downward chromatic notes of the song, followed by a long simmering chord helped by the harp before reaching the main theme. The “David Rose” sliding effect in the bridge proved most effective. Sophisticated Lady is hard enough to sing, let alone play, so it’s just as well the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra was on hand. Actually it sounds better played instrumentally. In fact it began life as an instrumental but I believe possesses the seeds of a piano concerto.
And again the orchestra repeats another exciting run-up, this time sounding almost like an organ. I wonder if that was deliberate or co-incidental? Then the sound of background music from an imaginary blockbuster biblical movie, complete with solo violin. And that haunting Ellington tune returns. Did I hear a touch of Torch’s Radio Romantic?
A single bell tolls Torch’s moment of freedom when the song gets everything the arranger can throw at it. Pure Torch. And then into waltz time. But how is this masterpiece going to end? Quietly. I wonder what the Duke would have said? Guild Light Music GLCD 5223
Analysed by Robert Walton
It must be highly unusual for a three minute composition on a 78 rpm disc to actually supply music for each scene like a film soundtrack. I can’t recall such a thing.
In this case the location is Paris (familiar to the composer) when we are picked up by a limousine. One’s mind immediately turns to Gershwin whose reputation for describing big cities is well established as An American in Paris, but the opening sound of Acquaviva is more appropriate (remember New York in a Nutshell?) This is followed by a lush welcoming string passage when we are ushered courteously into a humble café. You may say this is a little over the top, but this is no ordinary restaurant. You can tell by the music and the decor. A haunting Mancini-like waltz greets us as we step down from this classy automobile and enter a warm and friendly establishment.
Now seated at a table, you know you’re in for the ultimate in French cuisine or just a drink, because right on cue the sound of an accordion joins the orchestra. We’re in Paris alright! Made to order music just like the food. Yes, they’ve thought of everything. It’s the kind of café where you can have anything you like, and you won’t get annoyed glances from the staff, even if it’s just a coffee! After more string sounds, solos from the piano, guitar and woodwind provide the perfect atmosphere. Before we know it we’re back to the accordion but not for long because our limo has arrived and awaits us. That was a quick drink! Acquaviva is again on hand to whip us away into the traffic of the French capital’s most famous thoroughfare.
In conclusion a word or two about our esteemed composer, Joseph Francis Kuhn. I have to admit I was totally ignorant of him until a little research put me right. He was an American symphonic composer, arranger and conductor known for his sweeping rhapsodies. The Paris Theatre 0rchestra was one of the many groups connected with the American Miller Company one of which was the 101 Strings. Sadly Kuhn died at the tragically young age of 37 in 1962 from a spinal cord injury. Look out for four of his other works on Guild CDs.
Catch Champs Elysees Café on “Confetti” Guild GLCD 5175
Analysed by Robert Walton
The most recent volcanic eruption in Auckland, New Zealand took place about 800 years ago. It created Rangitoto Island at the mouth of the Waitemata Harbour. Fast forward to the 20th century and during WW2 a 6 year old boy was walking barefoot in the sand on the mainland opposite Rangitoto along Takapuna Beach, when he suffered his own personal ‘eruption’ - a nasty bee sting! Yes, it was me! There were no EpiPens in those days. By the time we got home my face was completely swollen and unrecognizable but the combination of a doctor and a brandy seemed to do the trick. I gather it was touch and go for a while. Luckily I have never experienced another. All the more reason to always carry an EpiPen. So hearing this composition brings it all back. I can’t help feeling sorry for my attacker though.
I never saw or heard the actual bee, but anytime Dolf Van Der Linden’s Orchestra happens to be playing Bees-A-Buzzin’ I’m straight back to the scene of the crime! There’s absolutely no doubt about the title of this piece, which enters instantly. The opening busy busy section is a good test for an orchestra especially one as good as this. Up, down and around goes the scale-like tune delivering the appropriate mood.
And so to a short secondary theme giving us just the right contrast to the main melody, which is standing by to rejoin the piece. And then we’re immediately into the bridge for a third tune adding yet another building block to this brief journey of continuous rhythm. The listener somehow feels freer (if that’s possible in this context) and slightly relaxed but as soon as the bee returns to its normal work of sipping the nectar, the melody takes on a more business-like tension.
Of course the most famous ‘bee’ tune is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble-bee from his 1900 opera “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” with a more oriental flavour containing 50,000 notes! It’s intended to evoke a chaotic and rapidly changing flight path of a bumblebee. It certainly succeeds.
And in its own way so does Seibert’s Bees-A-Buzzin’ if somewhat less frenetic. It’s a sort of gentle entry preparing you for the hard chromatic world of Rimsky-Korsakov!
Heard on Guild Light Music
Confetti GLCD 5175
By Robert Walton
Rawtenstall is the largest town at the centre of the Rossendale Valley in Lancashire, England. With a population of 22,000, it’s situated 15 miles north of Manchester in the ancient Forest of Rossendale.
Whenever I saw genial Rawtenstall-born Ernest at the Robert Farnon Society meetings, he always gave the impression of being a country person. He won a scholarship to Manchester Cathedral Choir School and Manchester University where he graduated in 1947. This solid musical
background paid off because the following year he was a staff arranger for a London firm of music publishers as well as becoming organist for a Mayfair church.
He was essentially a light music composer sometimes credited as ‘Alan Perry’. I first became aware of him through Little Serenade, a piece that was never off the air when I came to England in 1962. Because of that, I tended to associate Tomlinson with compositions of a rural nature perhaps relating to his roots.
Here’s one that is definitely not from that ilk but with an undeniably city feel about it - Sheerline. In fact it doesn’t sound typically Tomlinson at all but demonstrates he could turn his hand to any style should the mood or commission take him. If anything there’s a touch of Farnon about it. But it shows he’s right at home writing a busy rhythmic theme.
The introductory 4 bars don’t burst in like some compositions but sort of enter gently to join up with the waiting, catchy meandering melody. As well as being in a pleasant category it’s also ideal material for what it was designed for. Light orchestral music at its finest. There’s still so much of his music hidden away and demanding to be discovered.
The tune starts climbing immediately but not for long. With a mind of its own and sensing a journey ahead, it begins to dart about wherever the fancy takes it and keeps the listener on his/her toes. (Fred Astaire would be tempted). The harmonies are tailor made for the tune.
The middle 8 provides a perfect link, momentarily taking your eye off the ball. But it’s this constant caper as the melody twists and turns, creating one of the most perfect arrangements/compositions in this specialized art of production music. Ernest Tomlinson has created a classic, which would have been quite at home in the Chappell library.
And talking of libraries, when London publishing houses were throwing away skip loads of music, it was Tomlinson to the rescue as he saved tons of tunes for posterity. All devotees of light music owe him an incalculable debt of gratitude. As a footnote, actress Jane Horrocks (“Little Voice”) was also born in Rawtenstall. Guild GLCD 5232.