June 19, 2014

Spinning Notes

Our next arrangement is another Grammy-award-winning chart, this time written by saxophonist/keyboardist Fred Lipsius, and recorded by the band Blood, Sweat & Tears. Unlike “Ode to Billie Joe,” which starts serenely with solo acoustic guitar, “Spinning Wheel” announces itself majestically. Fred Lipsius writes an ear-catching brass fanfare that rips up to what musicians call a sharp 9 chord.
It certainly gets our attention.
Blood, Sweat & Tears goes on my short list of favorite bands. Their second and third albums produced multiple hits and are considered to be the highpoint of the band’s career. In 1969, as a saxophonist/keyboardist and budding arranger, not only did I want to play in Blood, Sweat & Tears, I wanted to be Fred Lipsius. I wanted to do what he did, but I had to remain content (along with my college roommates) to play “air horn” while listening to the LP’s.
In April of 2000 I was pleased to interview trumpeter Lew Soloff, a BS&T member featured prominently on albums two and three. He spoke about the popularity of the band, his admiration for Fred Lipsius’ creativity, and the differences of opinion that arose:
Lew Soloff
LS:    Blood, Sweat & Tears of course was in a class by itself. You know how big that band was at the time? That was a real trip. We were the second biggest band in the world to the Beatles.
LS:    The real creative force in that band was a particular arranger named Lipsius. I mean [Dick] Halligan also, but Lipsius was the prime creative arranger in the band. And he is kind of a shy, laid back sort. And oh man, he would bring in this chart or that chart and instead of saying okay we’ll do this, okay we’ll record this, it was like naaa that’s no good, naaa that’s no good. And finally he just stopped.
MR:    Yeah, he had less arrangements on those records than he should have.
LS:    Near the end, yeah. Of course. Because he didn’t want to bring something in and have it put down. And he was the real, amazing creative energy in that band. Actually so was Al Kooper, before I was there. I loved his songs. But it doesn’t matter. I’m always of the mind that if a band is allowed to just continuously try to be creative they’re better off than if they have a hit and they try to keep following that formula.
Lipsius got the assignment to make something special out of the song “Spinning Wheel” written by the band’s vocalist, David Clayton Thomas. The song had been recorded in one of David’s previous bands, but I’m sure it sounded nothing like the BS&T rendition.
After the brass pronouncement, the song builds from almost nothing. In verse one, Clayton sings two bars with only unison bass and piano; two measures with cowbell; then two bars with drums; providing a perfect setup for a “whap!” from the brass section. Clayton sings by himself “ride a painted pony, let the spinning wheel ride.” In the second verse, our arranger adds horn hits on beats two and four, and a very bluesy riff that climbs up to the flat 3rd blue note.
The bridge of the song reflects the psychadelia that found its way into pop music in the late ‘60’s. The feel is smoothed out with long and rather dreamy notes, a touch of phase-shifting, and a reverb-drenched echo on the word “real.” Horns build up with a catchy triplet figure and lead to a restatement of the opening riff.
In the third verse Lipsius writes two of the most distinctive beats in any BS&T song. It’s a wonderful solo spot for the trombonist, climbing from a basement pitch and landing on its target note with the word “drop” sung by David Clayton Thomas.
When I write arrangements I always arrive at a spot that I describe as “okay what now?” At this point in “Spinning Wheel” we’ve had a terrific intro, a couple of verses, a bridge, a third verse, and I can picture Fred Lipsius at this “what now” moment. What “now” becomes is classic BS&T. A number of the players in the band were jazz guys, so Fred writes the jazz part. At the 2:00 mark, for 37 seconds, the rhythm section becomes a swinging jazz piano trio, backing up a solo from Lew Soloff that had all my trumpet friends green with envy. At the 2:21 mark, brass chords set up what I can only describe as a demented bugle call that ends on a lip-busting high G.
The final verse has it all, brass hits with “shakes” worthy of the Count Basie Orchestra, the blues riff and the sliding trombone.
Time to end the song. Again, Lipsius is faced with a decision. Rather than a standard fade out or a dynamic last chord, Blood, Sweat & Tears engages in a bit of self-indulgence, which we happily encouraged them to do via our support of their records. As the song reaches its climax, an unexpected switch to a 3/4 occurs. If people were dancing they would have fallen down. This merry-go-round waltz quickly gives way to a duet of recorders that transport us from a merry-go-round to a steam calliope. There is a brief battle with the brass, trading their measures back and forth. Eventually the brass give up and fade out, leaving the recorders to play a vaguely familiar tune. In fact, it’s a melody that’s been around for many years, known by two titles: “Have You Ever Seen a Lassie Go This Way and That Way,” or “The More We Get Together.”
The music grows more chaotic and at 3:56 Fred Lipsius adds a wry opinion on the whole affair with a few sarcastic notes on his alto sax. Drummer Bobby Colomby sums it up with his tongue-in-cheek comment, “that wasn’t too good.” The jovial response by the rest of the band seems to say, “you’re right, let’s keep it.”
One of the most significant bygone technologies in the recording business is the use of magnetic recording tape. The state-of-the-art in 1969 was two-inch multi-track tape, which allowed the band to record multiple parts and overdubs, and mix down to half inch master tape. Every studio had a ridiculously low tech tool that was kept within reach. If the record company needed a shorter 45 rpm version, out came the razor blade. In the case of Blood, Sweat & Tears, their most creative middle sections often were literally sliced out of the mix. If you have the 45, a greatest hits compilation version, or if you listen to the song on YouTube, you may hear the edited version. The Lew Soloff solo is sadly left on the studio floor, replaced by a few measures of Steve Katz’s guitar. Not bad, but if you’re used to the long version it’s jarring when you hear the song without the jazz section.
Fred Lipsius can be counted among the arrangers who were indispensable contributors in creating a unique sound for a band. Lipsius won a Grammy for “Best Instrumental Arrangement” for his contribution to “Spinning Wheel.”
On a personal note, I was thrilled when brass player Steve Guttman became the musical director for the resurrected BS&T in 1985. Steve was my best friend in high school and my first musical collaborator.
In our third and final arrangement spotlight, we’ll look at the perfect combination of song, singer, band and arranger.


  1. Great analysis. 'Spinning Wheel' was the first record I ever owned, given to me at 4 or 5 by a hip aunt (who later also gave me 'Headhunters' at just the right time). I just about wore the vinyl out on that. I just recently learned of a similar brass-heavy band called 'Chase' from that era that I was too young to know about -- very heavy playing.

  2. Lew is featured here. I didn't know that BS&T played at Woodstock.