August 8, 2014

Inside the Studios, Part II

The heyday for the recording studios, especially in New York, was from the early 50’s through the 60’s. Musicians who were adept on their instruments and who had excellent sight reading skills found work plentiful, and often enjoyed up to four discrete sessions in a single day. Many interviewees spoke of their work in the studios at this time. In this part, I thought it would be interesting to outline the qualities that put musicians on the first-call list for session gigs.
As echoed in our last blog by Tom McGrath, being on time was the first requirement for getting that call. Joe Wilder recalled some advice from his father, about how he should conduct himself as a musician:
Joe Wilder and Monk Rowe
JW:    I guess I got it mainly from my father, who was a musician. My father played with a lot of the bands in Philadelphia and he was a stickler for being on time. He used to pound that into my brothers and me. You know it’s better for you to come one hour early than to come one second late for something, and he would use as an example, there was a drummer that played with one of the bands he played with. And the guy was a good drummer. And he said, “you know the dance starts at 8:00 and we’re all there,” and he said, “and we’re all sitting on the bandstand ready to play and the drummer isn’t there. He comes at 8:15.” He said, “he knows it takes him at least 20 minutes to set up his drums.” He said, “now what sense does that make? What excuse is that?” And then he would say, “you know just because you’re black doesn’t mean you have to show up late.”
When musicians speak of another musician and say he/she has “good time,” everyone knows what is meant. Usually this refers to a bassist or drummer who keeps a steady beat and is able to play with feeling while avoiding speeding up or slowing down. Being a successful studio musician required a different “good time,” the ability to be punctual without exception.
Bassist Milt Hinton got in on the ground floor and was one of the first black musicians to be accepted in the studio scene. His wife, Mona, spoke about the work:
Mona Hinton
MH:    It didn’t make any difference whenever a contractor would call, it could be, he never said who it was for. He would call and say, “is Mr. Hinton free at 10:00 on Tuesday” or whatever it is, and I had an appointment book, and, “yes he’s free.” “Well have him at RCA Victor or Capitol or Columbia Studio at such and such a time. Now when he left home he didn’t know whether it was a rock ‘n roll, whether it was with Stravinsky, whether it was with Barbra Streisand, he didn’t know who it was for. Guy Lombardo, you know, it could be anybody.  And these were the people. He just went there, they put the music up there, and he had to be on time, not looking for a place to park or not adjusting your strings. When that conductor’s baton came down across his nose you were there to get that first note.  And so Milton believes in punctuality. But these are the things that got him started. And once they knew that he was qualified, he could read anything, play anything, and so he just started getting more work than he could handle. Milton made his first recording date in 1930. And he has worked with every group of musicians, every generation, from that day up to the present day.
Mona alluded to Milt’s versatility, and his attitude that any music placed in front of him was worth playing well. Pianist Dick Hyman shared a similar opinion about doing what was necessary to serve the music, regardless of one’s personal taste.
Dick Hyman and Monk Rowe
MR:    What kind of people did you play behind?
DH:    Ivory Joe Hunter, Ruth Brown, Lavern Baker, The Coasters, The Drifters. I remember that terrible record “White Christmas” that was so popular.
MR:    Did you play on that?
DH:    I did. But we did all that stuff. And if you asked me what we thought of it, we always — we said to each other can you imagine, in 20 years, this was in 1955 or so, in 20 years people will be saying to each other, “listen darling, they’re playing our song.” And you know that’s exactly what happened. All of that funny music that we laughed at became classic in rock. And go figure it out.
MR:    Well musicians who’ve never done studio work may not realize that you don’t have to like everything you play on in a studio. It’s not possible.
DH:    No, no. What you have to like is being able to play it well.
MR:    Correctly, yeah.
DH:    And you do your best no matter what it is.
Dick Hyman wore multiple hats in the studio: pianist, organist, orchestrator, percussionist on occasion, and general get-the-job-done guy.
MR:    So if you listened to the Oldies station —
DH:    I do.
MR:    Are you likely to hear yourself?
DH:    Very much.
MR:    Can you tell me a couple of spots that I might hear?
DH:    Yeah. Johnny Mathis, there’s one — there’s a famous Mathis record that begins with a piano figure. “Chances Are.”
MR:    “Chances Are.” Yes. That’s you?
DH:    That’s one. Yeah. And then there’s another one that I whistled on for Johnny Mathis. And there’s another Bob Allen song.
MR:    “Wonderful Wonderful.”
DH:    Right.
MR:    That’s you whistling is that right?
DH:    That was one of my — well you know I had made my own — I have to admit — hit record of “Moritat,” which then became known as “Theme from the Three Penny Opera” and then finally became known as “Mac the Knife” in 1955 for MGM as the Dick Hyman Trio. And I whistled on it as well as playing an instrument called the harpsichord piano. So it became known around town that I was willing and I was capable of whistling. Willing to undertake it and capable of doing it without running out of breath. So I found myself being called to be a whistler on dates and I promptly joined AFTRA, that is the singers union, because their scale was higher than the musician’s union, and on a good day I might collect both scales on a single session. So I’m the whistler on that and I’m the whistler on something with Marion Marlowe , something called “The Man in the Raincoat,” one of those spooky third-man theme type recordings.
MR:    Was it a lip whistle or was it a teeth whistle?
DH:    No, no, no. The teeth whistling we left to Bob Haggart.
Studio musicians rarely saw the music in advance that was to be recorded. In the studio, time is money, and even the smallest mistake could require another take. Contractors soon learned which musicians had the chops, the punctuality, the versatility and the correct attitude. Drummer Bob Rosengarden shuttled between an NBC staff position (including membership in the “Tonight Show” band), recording dates, and the Music Director position for “The Dick Cavett Show.”
MR:    I was going to ask you when you showed up for a day at work at NBC, did you know what was in store for you that day?
Bob Rosengarden
BR:    I had no idea and couldn’t have cared less. I mean I just showed up. I always came from, in those days, because there weren’t that many good musicians, new guys who could play. I always prided myself and it’s not false modesty or anything, that I liked only two kinds of music — good music and bad music. So I didn’t mind having to play a polka, it didn’t really bother me, I can do it well, and I had a classical, musical background. So I found myself again slipping and sliding, right back into the NBC Symphony. Because I was one of the new boys. And there was a conductor there at that time by the name of Arturo Toscanini. Dumb luck.
MR:    But you were ready.
BR:    Oh, yes. I mean you sure as hell better be ready. And the old man couldn’t see too far away, you know you had to be right there. So he would look over and he’d make some gesture. And hopefully I’d figure out what it was he wanted me to do or not do. And [Johnny] Carson adopted us. I mean he loved Doc [Severinsen]. I still every once in a while hear from John. And again, slipping and sliding we were doing record sessions all the time, you know, every day. And we all saw each other every day in recording. We used to do three record dates a day, and a television show, every day. Seven days a week. It was a wild and wonderful time.
In our next blog we’ll take a look at some remarkable studio moments ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

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