June 6, 2014
An Ode to Billie Joe's Arranger
In the last blog we talked about the importance of arrangers in the music business: the decisions they make and the challenges they face. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some songs whose success owes in great part to a skillful job by the arranger.
In this blog, we’ll look at the arranging story behind “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry, who composed the song and recorded it in Los Angeles in July of 1967. It is melodically and harmonically a fairly basic song — a sort of double 12-bar blues, each verse covering 24 measures, with the typical 1 & 4 chords but with a delicious replacement of the expected 5 chord. Musicians sometimes refer to Bobbie’s chordal choice here as a “flat 7.” Bobbie sang and played the guitar herself, recording an acceptable take in 40 minutes. A&R man Kelly Gordon handed the tape to arranger Jimmie Haskell and said, “just put some strings on it, that way we won’t be embarrassed.” He obviously did not hear a number one hit. For Haskell, the operative term here was “sweetening,” adding instruments or background vocals to the basic track in hopes of increasing the hit potential. These parts are often quite basic, especially for the string players who came to these sessions expecting to play routine whole notes.
Haskell’s career had already encompassed work with some of the most well-known artists in pop and jazz. (You might want to check out JimmieHaskell.com.) With the feeling that no one was really going to listen to it, he decided to “create something that I liked.” He apparently felt free to compose challenging parts for the session musicians instead of writing for the record buying audience. The result, in my opinion, helped make the record the hit it became. After being edited to 4:48 from its original 7 minute length, the finished product was released by Capitol Records as the B side of a 45 rpm, opposite the song “Mississippi Delta.” B sides are usually ignored, but the DJs thought differently, flipped it over and sent “Ode to Billie Joe” up the charts. (Don’t you wonder what else happened to Billie Joe and his girlfriend during those edited minutes?)
Haskell gives us a brief foreshadowing of what is to come during the 4-bar intro where we hear the strings (two cellos and four violins) playing subdued, rather off-colored chords, with notes that seem a little awry. The strings then wait until :52, at the end of the first verse, to re-enter, letting the first part of the story speak for itself.
During the second verse, at 1:00, Haskell writes figures that answer each sentence, swooping up in half-step motion to give the song a taste of dark, country flavor. This technique of putting instrumental licks in between vocal phrases is a prime lesson arrangers learn. Covering up the vocal is rarely smart. Haskell also introduces a short blues-tinged phrase descending from the minor seventh, that we hear frequently throughout the song.
In the third verse, at 1:50, the singer’s childhood memories are matched with plaintive, atmospheric lines as the strings climb to their highest pitch thus far. The minimal vibrato makes me think of Paul McCartney’s plea to George Martin when he scored the strings for “Eleanor Rigby.” “Please don’t have them play that vibrato,” he reportedly said. McCartney felt it would sound too corny. The line “and now you tell me Billie Joe has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge” is sung over low, groaning cellos.
The fourth verse at 2:42 introduces even thicker harmonies, adding more weight to the lyric as we begin to realize where this story might be heading. At this point in the process I can picture Jimmy Haskell thinking, I’m into the fifth verse. I have just written some of my most creative string work so far. What should I do next? How can I top what I just wrote? Haskell made a wise decision that is often the last to be considered, and that is, use silence. For eight bars he wrote nothing. He let the song return to its original instrumentation of guitar and vocal. At 4:08 when Bobbie Gentry sings “spend a lot of time of time up pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,” Haskell writes chromatic, climbing, haunting violin lines, and as her flowers are dropped “into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge” he pulls one more beautiful trick out of his bag — swirling, descending harmonies that settle into a major chord that somehow feels minor.
For a song that wasn’t expected to be heard, it made a huge impression, bumping the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” from the number one spot on the Billboard chart and sitting there for four weeks. “Ode to Billie Joe” garnered eight Grammy nominations, including three wins for Gentry and one well-deserved win for Jimmie Haskell’s arrangement.
Next time we’ll take a look at a fabulous arrangement written for Blood, Sweat & Tears, one of my favorite bands.