© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
For the purposes of this feature, I wasn’t sure how best to describe The Hi-Lo’s, one of my all-time favorite vocal quartets, so I thought perhaps I would turn Gene Puerling, one of the group’s founding members, for the most accurate description.
Except that when I turned to his explanation in the insert notes to The Hi-Lo’s And All That Jazz, I got somewhat of a hedge as you will no doubt discern when you read the following:
“Outside of "Howd'ya get together?" the question most often asked of The Hi-Lo's is "Do you consider yourselves a jazz-vocal group?" The answer that rolls from our tongues (quite automatically by now) is, "We would rather not be categorized." Somewhat of an indirect answer, perhaps, but this is our feeling.
Since we endeavor to delve into all phases of vocal group work, such as our usual four-part harmonic constructions of standards, folk songs, and even barbershop gems in their traditional harmonies; and since our future plans call for the vocal adaptation of instrumental themes by the "classical masters," even work with Bach chorales, we can hardly be categorized as a “Jazz" vocal group. (Besides, has anyone really come up with an acceptable" definition of the word "jazz"?)
Looking at the contents of this program, however, we feel that we have directed our attention, for the most part, to the Jazz idiom. In doing so, we secured the great mind of Marty Paich for the instrumental backgrounds. Here is a man whose fine musical sense never cease. The instrumental scores here are tasteful and complete, fulfilling the job that is most difficult when backing a vocal group: that of complementing the group without overshadowing the basic vocal arrangement.
Marty, in turn, surrounded himself with the usual array of fine West Coast musicians. In the special-credits department, we see the name Clare Fischer. Clare is our accompanist (and our biggest critic). He is responsible for two originals here, including both vocal and instrumental writing. We feel that we have a real "find" in this talent from Michigan State University.
Onward, then! You'll find originals by Marty Paich, Russ Freeman, and Clare Fischer; vocal arrangements by Marty, Clare, and yours truly. And if you listen closely, the unmistakable tones of our friend, Frank DeVol, in 'THE HI-LO'S and all that jazz.”
In 1998 a collection of songs all taken from The Hi-Lo’s earliest recordings for Trend and Starlite were issued on a Varese Vintage CD [VSD 5694] entitled The Best of The Hi-Lo’s for which Elliot Kendall prepared the following insert notes. They represent an excellent historical overview of a singular vocal quartet - The Hi-Lo’s.
“Excitement, energy, emotion, humor and dynamics - these are just a few of the many elements found in the breathtaking vocal performances of The Hi-Lo’s. When they emerged as a musical force in the early 1950’s, the Hi-Lo's broke all the rules for vocal quartets. Traditional musical categories can't even begin to describe them; they lent their unique sound to pop, jazz, barbershop, calypso, folk, bossa nova and musical theater. The Hi-Lo's themselves prefer not to be categorized as their encompassed almost every contemporary musical style.
These recordings represent the formative years of the Hi-Lo's. During this period, the group took great risks and liberties with familiar standards, and added new twists and ad-libs to then-contemporary selections.
Group leader and bass singer Gene Puerling developed his many different musical ideas while growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "I formed several groups during the late '40’s," he recalls today. "I started the Double Daters, the Honeybees and the Four Shades.
The Four Shades included future Hi-Lo's baritone singer Bob Strasen, who was originally from Strasbourg, France. When I first met him, he already had considerable experience in choir work and other vocal groups in and around Milwaukee. Bob was a terrific barbershopper, and he had a wonderfully smooth vocal quality
In 1951, Puerling moved to Los Angeles and, within a week of his arrival, met tenor singer Clark Burroughs. Burroughs was a Los Angeles native, a graduate of Loyola University and a member of Roger Wagner's chorale before he met Puerling. Puerling and Burroughs were soon roommates and singing partners in a quartet called the Youngsters on the "Alan Young T.V variety show." To make ends meet, Puerling did occasional session work (including one with Les Baxter’s orchestra) until he eventually started working at Wallichs Music City record store in Hollywood. He also worked for a brief period as a shipping clerk at London Records.
Meanwhile Burroughs joined the Encores, the vocal group which performed with the Billy May band. The baritone singer in the encores was Bob Morse, a native of Pacoima, California and a skilled graphic artist who was attending Chouinard Art Institute (this skill was later utilized when he designed the group's early album covers and on-stage wardrobe). Burroughs and Morse sang in the Encores for over a year and, when the group split up, Puerling approached them with the idea of forming a vocal quartet. When they agreed, Puerling summoned his former singing partner Bob Strasen from Milwaukee who flew to Los Angeles and The Hi-Lo’s were born. The first vocal workouts immediately convinced all four that they had made the right decision. As Puerling put it, "as soon as we sang a few chords together, we knew it was going to be great.”
For ten weeks or more the Hi-Lo's rehearsed at least three hours a day. Every note, syllable and dynamic was tirelessly planned out before they even entered a recording studio. Writing and arranging most of the vocal charts were Gene Puerling responsibility. "For one thing," Gene notes, "Clark had a phenomenal vocal range, and that opened up all sorts of arranging possibilities. I found myself conceiving very complex vocal ideas, most of which these guys sang with great aplomb. The more difficult I wrote, the more they seemed to love the challenge. “Marvelous talent!" Clark Burroughs adds: "When Gene finished creating and polishing an arrangement, it was comparable to all the intricacies and workings of a finely-crafted Swiss watch. It really became a work of beauty and art."
In April of 1953, the Hi-Lo's were signed to Trend records in a deal made possible by arranger-conductor (and future film composer) Jerry Fielding. "As I recall, we literally began knocking on doors to sing for people, and one of those doors just happen to belong to Jerry Fielding,” Puerling remembers with a laugh.
Burroughs recalls that, "Jerry was very excited about our sound; I can still remember how effusive he was. He was really knocked out, Two of the songs we auditioned for him were They Didn't Believe Me and Georgia. He took us immediately to Albert Marx who owned Trend records, and in no time at all we had a signed contract. From that point on, things really started to happen. We secured a management deal with Paul Cerf and Bob Ginter of Beverly Hills, and several radio stations picked up our first record right after it was released. Soon after that Bill Loeb became our personal manager.
On April 10, 1953, The Hi-Lo’s recorded They Didn’t Believe Me, Georgia, Peg ‘O My Heart and My Baby Just Cares For Me for a Trend extended play LP. All four songs were recorded between 9:30 PM. and 12:30 AM at Radio Recorders Annex on Sycamore Avenue in Hollywood. Among the 15 musicians employed for the session were such jazz greats as William "Buddy" Collette (saxophone), Conrad Gozzo (trumpet), Dick Nash (trombone), Ted Nash (saxophone) and George "Red" Callender (sass). Soon after this session, the group also recorded a single of Love Me or Leave Me with legendary jazz vocalist Herb Jeffries for the Olympic label.
By late 1954, the Hi-Lo’s had left Trend and signed a new deal with Starlite Records where they were fortunate enough to have their orchestrations arranged and conducted by Frank Comstock. Under Comstock, the Starlite sessions were recorded at Goldstar and Capitol studios in Hollywood. "Those were certainly exciting sessions and they were done very quickly, with no overdubs," Frank Comstock recalls today. "Every minute of studio time was utilized, and we would easily finish an album in three days, perhaps recording four songs a day during that time. I think that's what makes those records sound so fresh and exciting today." Clark Burroughs elaborates, "Gene would write the vocal arrangements, and then Frank would write orchestra parts to complement Gene's arrangements. It was actually very simple."
In 1957 the Hi-Lo's signed with Columbia Records, where they continued their vocal harmony legacy with orchestras led by Frank Comstock, Warren Barker, Frank de Vol and Marty Paich. In 1959, Bob Strasen left the Hi-Lo’s and was replaced by tenor Don Shelton.
The Hl-LO's were also extremely popular on variety television, and appeared on, among others, the Steve Allen show (6 episodes), the Rosemary Clooney show (39 episodes!), Swing Into Spring with Peggy Lee, The Nat “King” Cole Show, The Garry Moore Show, a Frank Sinatra Special, The Bell Telephone Hour's Main Street U.S.A. and the Pat Boone show.
The early 1960’s found the Hi-Lo’s signed to Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records, where they continued their unique and innovative sound until they disbanded in 1964.
In 1967, Gene Puerling and Don Shelton former The Singers Unlimited with Bonnie Herman and Len Dresslar and began a new era for vocal harmony work with the use of studio overdubbing.
The Hi-Lo’s reunited and performed at the 21st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival in 1978 and recorded a pair of inspired albums for the MPS label in 1979 and 1981.
The following video features The Hi-Lo’s performing Marty Paich’s arrangement of Of Thee I Sing.