August 20, 2014

Inside the Studios, Part III

The countless record dates played by veteran jazz and swing musicians produced a lengthy list of humorous, informative and poignant stories. Musicians who were used to playing within the swing parameters were called upon to make adjustments. Some of them made the adjustment, others not so much. Two west coast keyboardists, Ray Sherman and Paul Smith, both encountered what were called the repetitive “rock & roll triplets.”
Ray Sherman
RS:    Funny, that was the days of, I don’t know if they even called it rock & roll or rhythm & blues, with the triplets in the right hand. I started getting a lot of calls like that, where that’s what they wanted.
MR:    Can you recall some of the records you played on?
RS:    Well I think the only hit I was on “Primrose Lane.” And I think I faked an introduction on that, and they always say whatever I did was good.
MR:    It became a little hook.
RS:    Yeah. Because I did a record date after that, it was funny, a friend of mine, Jack Marshall, the guitar player, it was one of his dates. And he came over to me and he said, “do you think you could play something like the guy played on the ‘Primrose Lane’ intro?”
And from Paul Smith:
Paul Smith
PS:    I did one date where the piano was facing the conductor and this whole thing was eighth triplets. And just as a gag I took off my loafer and put it on my hand so I’m playing with a shoe. And he can’t see. And I’m going ching-ching-ching with a shoe on my hand. I played the entire date that way and he said great, that’s the sound he wants. And I’m playing with a shoe. So I had a faint idea what was coming up. I mean he never knew and I certainly never told him, but I could have sent one of my kids in with a shoe and play duh-duh-duh and that’s it. So I could see what music was coming to at that time.
MR:    I have to ask the obvious question: what key was that piece in if you were playing with your shoe on?
PS:    It doesn’t make any difference. It’s just the sound, ching-ching-ching. I didn’t make any chord changes. The shoe covered part — it was mostly on the black keys, but the lower part was on the white. So you have white and black both. But all he could hear was ching-ching-ching, and that’s the sound he wanted.
MR:    That six-eight feel, was it because it was a good dance feel? Is that why that became a thing?
PS:    I don’t really know. I mean I went up to him after the date and told him not to call me on those kind of dates anymore. I said don’t call me on those triplet dates. You’ve got a musical date I’ll be happy to do it. I mean it cost me a lot of money but I’d rather come home happy than irritated.
As Bob Rosengarden stated in our last blog, studio musicians were so busy running from one session to another that they rarely had the luxury of reflecting on what they had just recorded, whether it had hit potential or whether it would never be heard again. West coast saxophonists Ernie Watts and Plas Johnson spoke of these dates:
Ernie Watts
MR:    When you were doing a particular date did you ever have a sense of this tune is going to last; that it’s going to be something that years from now people are still listening to?
EW:    No. When you’re working you’re just working. It’s just your work, it’s just what you do. I would get up in the morning and I’d go and I’d do a record date. And it could be the Jacksons or it could be Sarah Vaughan or it could be Barbra Streisand. I did pop records, I did jazz records, I’d go and I’d do a record date in the morning and then in the afternoon was “The Tonight Show.” So the record dates usually run three hours so I’d do a date from 10 until 1, take a break, go over to do “The Tonight Show,” “The Tonight Show” would be off at 6:30 and I’d do another record date at 7. So I’d usually do two record dates and “The Tonight Show” just about every day, or I’d do three record dates or a big movie date and I’d send a sub to “The Tonight Show.” Because sometimes you know movie dates are all day long. I did that every day for 20 years. So when you’re doing that, all you’re doing really, all you’re thinking about is keeping your health together and going to work. You have absolutely no idea of the greatness of what’s going on, or how something is going to last or whatever. What’s happening now is all of these R&B records that I played on with The Temptations and Barry White and all of these people, they’re being used for commercials, and I’m getting these big checks. I’m getting these checks for Billy Preston things.
And from Plas Johnson, who gave life to “The Pink Panther”:
Plas Johnson
PJ:    Henry [Mancini] had the talent of matching the player with the tune you know. He would call just the right saxophone player for what he was writing on. Just the right harmonica player. He knew players quite well and he knew music. He had a knack for putting stuff together that matched, and I guess that’s how I came to work on his “Pink Panther.”
MR:    It’s a classic. Certainly had a sound to it. Did you have any idea at the time that it was going to become one of those tunes that everybody can whistle?
PJ:    No. Of course not. But we did have an idea at the time that it was a great piece of music because it was like 8:00 on a cold winter morning and I forget how many, it was a full orchestra with strings and everything, and after the tune was recorded, after the performance of the tune the orchestra applauded.
Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli has played on thousands of recordings, some of which can kindly be called “novelty records” and others “musical gems.” He shared an amusing anecdote that took years to develop:
Bucky Pizzarelli
MR:    You never quite know what’s going to catch the public’s ear.
BP:    No. You never know. But in those days a hit record was a glorious thing to have, for an artist to find some — Patti Page had a thing called “Doggie in the Window.”
MR:    “How Much is that Doggie in the Window.”
BP:    Yeah, we made it in the last five minutes of a three hour session. So how do you know? I think Doc Severinsen was playing trumpet on it.
MR:    I mean I can just picture you going home and saying hey, guess what we did today.
BP:    Yeah, and “Itzy Bitzy Bikini.”
MR:    “Itzy Bitzy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” Oh my God. That was Brian Hyland, wasn’t it?
BP:    Yeah that’s right. And another thing, I made, here’s a funny story. I made Ray Charles’ “Georgia on my Mind.” It was with Ralph Burns, but it was one of those busy weeks where he was farming everything out. And we still don’t know who wrote it, Bobby Brookmeyer or Al Cohn wrote the arrangement. So we do the arrangement. Smash hit. Big, big hit. Thirty years later I’m doing the Dick Cavett Show. And Ray Charles is going to sing this tune. And the conductor comes up to me and I’m with Bobby Rosengarden’s band. And the guy said to me “don’t play the guitar on this, because it was a certain kind of guitar playing on the record.” So he was afraid I didn’t know. So I laid out. Do you believe that?
MR:    I can’t believe that.
BP:    I didn’t tell him.
For the busy studio musicians whose day-to-day work could include every possible scenario, the stories they brought home were rarely about what a wonderful day they had. More often, they were bizarre and unexpected anecdotes. Bass trombonist Alan Raph shared a story of a misunderstanding with a volatile vocalist:
Alan Raph
MR:    Can you remember one of the worst or most ridiculous recording dates that you’ve ever done?
AR:    Yeah. Well ridiculous, not worst.
MR:    Okay.
AR:    I was with Warren Covington on a schlock rock & roll date at a horrible studio back in the 60’s. And there was a black singer, a lady, and the studio was kind of dirty, funky is a better word. And she was singing a song called “The Ghoul in School.” As bad as it can get. It was just rotten, absolutely rotten, wretched. Now she sang this. We played it. Now it’s break time. You have to know Warren Covington. Warren was a wonderful trombone player, had his own band and he was like Mr. Indiana, with the sweater, always looked nice, always had his face washed and hands and nails manicured and the whole thing, he was just as collegiate as he could be. And about 12 years older than me I guess. We were the only two trombones. We’re sitting there. And now the singer comes off, and we actually did it with her on a little stage up front so it was a completely live date. She comes off during the break and walks past Warren, and Warren is spraying his slide. And she walks past Warren and she stops, she says, “don’t you spit at me mother.” Well Warren got so embarrassed. I mean he was dumbfounded. I was dumbfounded. And she stood there. She’s like, “you’ve got no right to spit at me.” And we are looking like my God, you know. So Warren immediately starts going into his school teacher routine. “Oh no, please, I would never, you see we trombone players” and he starts going with this whole thing — “we trombone players use the slide you know.” Well he looks to me for help. And I couldn’t talk I was on the floor. I couldn’t breathe I was laughing so hard. It was just like, you got it. Oh God that was funny. It was just hilarious. Well she wouldn’t let up. She gave him about five minutes of what a rotten person he was and how dare he do this and she’s not using the King’s English, she’s like really lacing into him from Funksville. And Warren was beside himself. He just didn’t know how to stop it. As it went on it just got funnier and funnier. I mean I had trouble breathing. Anyhow, that’s, talk about ridiculous, that was one of the ridiculous ones.
At a Musicians Union rate of $42.50 for a three hour session, the first call studio musicians were making a significant salary playing three to four sessions every day. Some of the top players in the pop field commanded a better fee and had the juice to actually opt for a piece of the recording. Saxophonist Phil Woods talked about his work with Billy Joel and his monetary decision:
Phil Woods
MR:    Can you recall when you did the thing on “Just the Way You Are,” how many takes did you get on that?
PW:    Oh one or two tops. Oh yeah it was just me and Phil Ramone in the booth. And he had the changes written on the back of a matchbook cover or something. But it was like a pop tune — a pop tune in the sense of a Broadway, Tin Pan Alley kind of song. It wasn’t really a rock & roll song. It’s really a pretty nice tune. So it was not a problem. Yeah I did Phoebe Snow’s overdub and Billy Joel in the same day — the same half hour.
MR:    Was he producing both of those?
PW:    Yeah. And I got $700 for both things. $350 apiece.
MR:    I’m glad to hear that. And a Grammy.
PW:    You know in those days, I mean from Mike Brecker on, from that period, when they would use soloists, it was kind of SOP, you’d ask for a quarter of a point. If a tune from the album was taken out and made a single, you’d get a quarter of a cent on every single that they made taken from the album, if you’re the soloist on it. My manager didn’t know anything about this stuff and I sure didn’t know anything about it. But you know we could have got it, all we had to do was ask. You know how much a billion quarter of a pennies are? That’s a lot of money. That record sold over a billion, biggest selling record of all time. But I mean I would have had the money but I wouldn’t have had such a good story.
We’ll do one more blog entry to do justice to our studio tales. Watch this space.

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