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.

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.