Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Singers Unlimited - Part 3

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

How do you turn a fantasy into a reality?

How do you take a multi-talented vocal Jazz group and produce fourteen [14] state of the art recordings with accompaniments ranging from Roger Kellway’s cello quartet to the big band scorings of Pat Williams and Rob McConnell to the string arrangements of the masterful Robert Faron? And, just to make the experience even better, how do you make three of these albums a cappella recordings of unsurpassed bel canto eloquence?

I’ve got it! Since this is a fantasy that most probably could never be realized, let’s turn it into a fictional story, or, even better a television screen play or, how about we make a movie!

Except that the fourteen albums as described above did become a reality and you can buy them individually or collectively in a boxed set and experience the brilliant musicianship of The Singers Unlimited and friends wrapped in a sound that is the epitome of high grade audio quality.

What! Surely, I jest.


All it took was a man and a woman of gracious civility to put their money where their hearts lay and create a fairy land environment for all of this to become a reality.

One wonders what the history of Jazz would have been like without patrons like Hans Georg and Marlies Brunner-Schwer?

Gene Lees Ad Libitum &
December 2005
VoL 23 Na 12
Ghosts of the Black Forest
Part Two

“Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer was unique in the history of the music business. He was the grandson of Hermann Schwer, a pioneer of the German broadcasting industry and the founder of the hardware company SABA. Hans Georg worked as a recording engineer, mixing and synchronizing motion picture sound. He became technical director of SABA and as such contributed to the development of high-quality loudspeakers and tape machines.

In 1969 he established MPS records — it stands for Musik Produktion Schwarzwald, or Black Forest Music Production — devoted to recording music he personally liked, regardless of its commercial potential. He set up a studio at his home at Villingen in the Black Forest, where he recorded a great many jazz albums, allowing the artists perfect freedom. And he developed what I thought was then the best engineered sound in the industry. Some of the finest recordings Oscar Peterson ever made were done for Brunner-Schwer's label.

Oscar was the first person to pull my coat to The Singers Unlimited. He had been recording at Villingen and returned with tapes of his new album, one of two MPS Peterson recordings for which I wrote liner notes. He called me and said, "I've got something you've got to hear." It was a tape of The Singers Unlimited, and it flabbergasted me.

Don Shelton said, "We were very blessed."

Len Dresslar said, "It was the most amazing thing. So many of the times the A&R people, the producers, will say I want you to do this. Hans Georg had none of that. It was just an agreement with Gene. 'You write what you want to write, and do what you want to do. I want to record the voices. He used the term 'document.' It wasn't just to record. 'I want to document you as artists.' No one had ever heard of a guy like this. In this industry there just wasn't anybody like that."

Bonnie said, "He was like a patron, a benefactor, a mentor."

Don Shelton said, "He loved us so much that he went out and bought the Ampex 16-track, just for us. It cost one hundred and fifty thousand dollars U.S." Since this was in 1971, the sum today would probably be three or four hundred thousand dollars.

He even bought special headphones for the group.

I said, "I saw Tony Bennett forced to use them once. He tore them off and threw them at the engineer. They bounced off the glass."

Bonnie said, "Headphones are our life. We had to use them. You had to really learn how to operate with them. There are headphones and there are headphones. I remember when Hans Georg invested in the Sennheiser headphones."

Don said, "Exactly — because they were special."

Bonnie said, "You could hear acoustically in the room. We could hear each other and also hear the other tracks."

Gene said, "The manufacturers were friends of Hans Georg."

Don said, "We had the best."

"Sennheiser," Gene said, "and I forget the others that we used, they were all there. They would send over test microphones for us to beta test."

Len said, "He even got me a microphone that was built for tubas. He got a Sony C3, or something like that, and we used it. And it was great!"

Gene said, "That still sounds like the lowest, biggest “C” I have ever heard. Didn't we record that in the morning? Or after you smoked a pipe?"

Len said, "I am kidding. It worked better in the morning."

Every singer knows that you can hit low notes in the morning that are out of the question later in the day. Don Shelton said: "Gene used to write notes on Len's part. Occasionally, if there was a really low section, it was 'Not to be sung after 10 a.m.' Or 'Have to do this early.'"

Gene said, "One of the reasons I did was for general publishing. It was on there."

Don said, laughing, "The college kids must have had fun with that, 'Oh, sir. It says we can't sing this now. It is two o'clock in the afternoon."'

I asked them: "How many voices did you sometimes use?"

Gene said, "We're asked that question often. I have a hard time thinking about it because we do it with so many variables. First of all we make a beginning track starting with the four of us singing into two channels of stereo. We sing the three top voices and the two bottom voices as the first two passes of stereo. Then we would do one more, mono. And then Don and I would sing the middle two parts."

I said, "It's an incredibly rich sound. The amazing thing about it is on the close intervals, the seconds and things. And everyone's in tune! That's hard to do!"

Len said, "Well, I'm not going to deny that! Yes, it was!"

Don said, "It's a matter of all four of us getting on the same page, and you have to have people who sort of think the same thing. We all have this background of music, which we brought to the table when we were getting started. You sort of know these things - and if you've done a lot of listening to — as Gene did early on in his career, Robert Farnon — and those things which had those lush harmonies with a lot of unusual progressions. So you have these different things already in your head. You know you have to execute, I guess. And that, to a lot of singers, is very difficult. I've run into countless people through the years in studio work who are just lost when they have to sing an intricate sounding chord. And for us, we did it very quickly."

I said, "Speaking of Robert Farnon, was he presumably one of your inspirations?"

Gene said, "Oh yes. I was living alone in California, in Hollywood, a place where the London record companies were shipping to. It was near Sunset. We handled the LPs of the Farnon stuff, and so I took some of those home. I would listen to him all the time. There were so many things from which to choose, cherry things. I liked the secondary lines; they were always so good. There were a lot of group singers in Los Angeles at the time. We would get together and just listen to Farnon records. And then the boss, bless his heart, gave me time off to start off with the Hi Los and get our act together."

Bonnie said, "I never knew that."

I said, "Farnon would insert a chord from another key and just run through it real quickly. And then, there were the lines."

Len said, "I was thinking about Sentimental Journey that we recorded with him, and he did exactly that. He had this chord that went on, shattered into all of these wonderful things. That was his way of writing."

Gene said, "Hank Mancini, Andre Previn, they all had the highest regard for him. Nobody could figure out that woodwind sound. It's the bassoon in the back. He had flute, flute, clarinet, clarinet, bass clarinet, and bassoon in the back. And we saw it when we standing there recording with him in Chapel Studios in London, and I said, 'There it is. That's the color.' A bassoon tucked in, not so that you'd know it's a bassoon. It drove Mancini and them crazy. They couldn't figure it out. What was in there? It's like a spice."

"Another neat little trick he had," I said, "was to use very soft, under-recorded vibes doubling the lead string line."

Len Dresslar recalled one of the sessions with Farnon: "They were recording. Farnon is up there conducting and the first fiddle goes mmmmm Splat! Falls right over on his side. Farnon bent over him and said, "My God the man is pissed!" They all laughed at the memory. Len added: "They canceled the session."

I said, "Did Farnon tell you about the drummer Phil Seaman? A fine musician but a serious drinker. He was in a pit orchestra doing some musical and fell asleep. They reached one of his cues and somebody woke him. He came up and his mallet hit the underside of a cymbal. There was this huge crash in the middle of a ballad, and he stood up with dignity and said, 'Dinner is served.'"

Don said, "The music business is filled with these stories. You just can't believe them but they're true."

Len said, "I always wished I could be that cool, 'Dinner is served.'"

To prepare the group for their recording sessions, Bonnie said, "Gene used to make cassettes for us of every chord so we could hear it ring out and know what to expect."

Len said, "He played on his little Wurlitzer electric piano. That was his tour de force for years."

Gene said, "I wish I still had it. Actually, I think Roger Kellaway has it, great little piano."

I said, "I had that piano for a while. It originally belonged to Don Ellis, and I too wish I still had it. It had a distinctive, pretty sound."

Did Gene do a lot of rewriting when the group assembled in Villingen?

"Not very much, because we didn't have that much time. We came on a Saturday night, had the grand cocktail party. Sunday was a day off. We just sort of met in the park — next to the Ketterer Hotel — and said, "How are you?" and all that stuff. I think that we started on Monday morning at 8 o'clock.

"I usually went right to the piano and tried to correct things, and just apologized profusely -- but too late, you know? This group is so good at putting things together fast; there was no problem."

(Later, Bonnie told me, "Len's wife Nicki, a sweet, wonderful woman, came to Villingen with Len for most of the sessions. I have such warm memories of Nicki and Gene's wife, Helen, from those years. Don's wife, Joan, had four small daughters to attend to in Chicago, making her visits less frequent. While we toiled away in the studio, Nicki and Helen were off exploring, often going antiquing with Marlies Brunner-Schwer, Hans Georg's wife, buying clocks and music boxes and having lunch in the quaintest of villages in the Schwarzwald and nearby Switzerland, all in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. The guys and I were positively envious.

("Every night, we would all convene for dinner in the cozy Hotel Ketterer dining room and ask Helen and Nicki what they had been up to that day. It was always good and good for many laughs. Great food, a glass or two of local wine, and singing with that group. What could be better?")

How did they choose material to sing?

Len said, "That was Gene's bag."

Gene said, "That was me, generally speaking. I really resorted to standards. I couldn't see much in the new things. I wasn't keeping up with the times for this group sound. I just wasn't into it. And Hans sure didn't seem to care. He said, "Just do what you want to do." There were some originals of Oscar's and Roger's of course, and some others. Farnon had one there I believe, of his."

Len said: "How Beautiful is Night, I think it was."

Gene confirmed: "How Beautiful Is Night, right. We had the odd stuff that was there. And Clare wrote a couple of things. Generally speaking, I would go back to standards, just scavenge the standard book."

"You did some John Lennon and Paul McCartney stuff," Bonnie said. "It was very current then."

I said, "And then, there was the Cello Quintet album. The group consisted of Roger Kellaway, Chuck Domanico, bass, Edgar Lustgarten, cello, Joe Porcaro, drums, and Emil Richards, percussion."

Bonnie said, "And so much sound out of just those people."

Len added: "They were incredible, absolutely incredible."

Gene said, "I liked the idea of that sound. It was something different that we had never used. We used some big bands, and Roger brought a different life to it. We would pick different tunes to do, with him in mind. We did his Stone Ground Seven, which was difficult."

Don agreed: "Yeah, that was tricky."

The group recorded on that date one of the songs I wrote with Roger.

Gene said, "I remember him playing that song on a break. I said, 'Wait a minute. That is so beautiful. It would be great for Bonnie, and I can write a choral background to it.' I said, 'We will just record your track.' And, that was it. Roger plays Mozartian piano on it."

I said. "My God. that was twenty-five years ago. The session was at the A&M studio on La Brea in Hollywood. You are the only ones who ever sang it, and Roger and I were blown away."

Don asked, "What was the title of that song?"
"Yours Truly Rosa. Roger and I wrote it for a movie that was never released."

Len said, "That is a beautiful thing. That album, correct me if I am wrong, was picked by the Japan Jazz Society. You sent me the copy of the Japanese recording of it. What an honor that was — tremendous."

This was followed by the first of two albums with Rob McConnell.

"That big band, the Boss Brass," Bonnie said, "you could tell, played together often. They had a regular Monday night gig."

Len said, We had a friend who gave me an album and told me, 'You have to hear to this band. And listen to it I did, and I said, 'Holy Hannah.' I copied it and got it off to Gene."

Gene said, "It was the double one on Umbrella Records, the two-disc album."
It was recorded direct to disc, with no splicing. The band had to play each of the four sides straight through.

Len said,"Gene just flipped over the thing. He called Rob. After he talked to Rob and decided we were going to do it, Don said, 'You know what we should do? We should go up to Toronto to meet this guy.'"

Don said, "On Saturday night! Our wives had been out shopping in the afternoon. They came home. We said, 'Would you like to go out to dinner tonight? They said, 'Sure. Where are we going?' We said, 'Toronto.' We called American Airlines. We got on the plane, and Joan forgot her driver's license. They did not want to let her into Canada. They asked what was our purpose of the visit? We said we were going to hear Rob McConnell. They responded, 'Oh, that's okay then. You can go.' Only because of Len did Rob knew we were there. You went upstairs to the club, and Len being so tall, he could look in. The place was packed, closing night. Rob saw Len and came out, and took us in. He couldn't get us in front of the band until the last set. My wife's left leg was totally bruised: I kept hitting her like this from the back, I was so excited. And then we came home. The next day we were back to Chicago."

To be continued ….

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