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.

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.