Friday, April 8, 2016

The Singers Unlimited - Part 4

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

Our revels now are ended.
These our actors. As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air....
We are such stuff as dreams are made on
And our little life is rounded with a sleep.

— Shakespeare, The Tempest

“The Singers Unlimited can never again exist. In a sense it never did exist. In a way all the tracks, up to twenty-seven of them, were like Bonnie's ghost tracks. The group itself was a ghost: it was conjured magically into being by the talent of four extraordinarily gifted people and a brilliant, patient, rich record-company owner and engineer, there in the beauty of the Black Forest.”
- Gene Lees

Here is the concluding portion of the Gene Lees interview with The Singers Unlimited.

If you want to know the definition of “incredulity,” one explanation could be that The Singers Unlimited never won a Grammy.

Then again, as the Late Groucho Marx professed: “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.”

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

“I asked them when and where they did the first album with Robert Farnon.

Don said, "It was 1974. Hans Georg would fly us to the scene in London where the orchestra was going to be so we could get used to the studio.

"This was Hans Georg," Bonnie said.

Gene said, "Bonnie would always do her Geisterstimme tracks." The German means ghost or phantom tracks. These were tracks that would be used as guides for the rest of the group, but not used in the final mix. Gene continued, "Because so many of my things were rubato, she would sing it the way she perceived it should be done. She was right on the mark, and it would come out just perfect. We would have a guide track when we came to the studio."

Bonnie said, "This wee little voice singing quietly."

Gene said, "Just Bonnie singing, with some background, and from there we would put voices in."

I asked, "Did working with so big an orchestra, and with Farnon, put any restrictions on what you could write harmonically? Because you knew what he was going to do in the orchestra?"

"Not at all. He is one of the great arrangers that can fit anything, and make it much better. He has such good leading voices. I like that sort of thing. I use the bass as the foundation. Once he comes in with his middle section, the shout, it's all together different. Then, he comes back down to where you are."

"There are arrangers," Don Shelton said, "and then there are arrangers.. I could write an arrangement. But do I have musical taste to blend what I would like to do with what the artist is really going to do? And be in the foreground, or the background, when it should be? That's called taste, and it doesn't happen with everyone.

Len said, "Wasn't there a nick name for Farnon?"

"The Governor," Don said. [Or Guv’nor = Boss]

Bonnie said, "What a wonderful guy," and to Gene, "He used to call you, 'You old trout.' I used to love that. We did another Farnon in Villingen, Eventide. The musicians came from where?"

Don said, "Munich and all around."

Bonnie continued, "It was singing to the track. When you listen to this you have to know that we had to tune up to. This ensemble didn't tune up to us, and the beautiful, wonderful player Eberhard Weber was on bass. And I was singing my Geisterstimmes. He would look over at me like 'I don't believe it.' And, I'll tell why — you tell why." She nodded to Len Dresslar.

"Well it was, first of all, because a guy had come in to tune the harpsichord. He tuned it to A, in European flavor, which is a half tone higher. Nobody realized that until we got in there and then the oboe had a hell of a time trying to get keyed up to that A."

Don said, "It was a mine field that Gene had to deal with in mixing."

I said, "Pitch has been creeping up in orchestras. For what? A century or more?"

Don said, "Right."

"And European pitch is higher than ours."

Don said, "Oh, yeah. We go A, 440. They are always 442, and maybe a few seconds higher than that.

I said, "And this is destructive to violins built in the Stradivarius period, because it puts on so much tension. They weren't built for that. They were probably built for a lot lower then A 440."

Len said, "I hadn't thought of that."

I said, "You have been asked many times why you couldn't record the background tracks, and sing the four voices in front, live, in concert. People have done things like that, all the way back to Les Paul and Mary Ford. But you wouldn't do it."

Gene said, "We were asked to do that in Japan for several major concerts. The producer said, 'We will pay for the rehearsal of the singers in Chicago.' But on behalf of the group, I said we would not want to do that. There are too many unknowns. We would just be standing up there."

Bonnie said, "Just at that time, Paul McCartney had used pre-recorded vocals at his live show."

I said, "Now that is commonplace."

Bonnie said, "Of course now, everyone has gone so far the other way. But we thought that the people who bought our records, and liked our sound, for us to stand up there with any kind of fake lip synching was just not us."

Gene said, "It just felt uncomfortable."

Don said, "They said to us, 'You've done it for Manhattan Transfer. But when you stop to think about Manhattan Transfer, there are just these four parts that are self contained. Ours are not that way. You can't pick out what four parts we are going to do. We talked to Murray Allen at Universal. We said, 'Murray, help us with this. How could we do it?' We couldn't figure it out. Are we going to sing the top two parts? Are we going to sing the bottom two parts? Are we one top part? One Don-and-Gene part — baritone and bass? What are we going to do on top of all this other, and have it all valid? And then, have it all mixed in?"

Bonnie said, "And if you wanted to do what Paul McCartney was doing and add in those other vocals while you were singing here, you are singing along with tracks. And there is the nightmare of things not working."

Don said, "It is more sophisticated now. Even the Carpenters were doing that. They had recorded tracks. They had somebody along who knew exactly when to press that button. But it was just different with us. It just didn't seem like it was going to fly."

Some time later, Don told me: "We did do a few live TV shows in Germany and Vienna and Paris where we lip synched to our recorded stuff, one with Oscar Peterson in Berlin. They did multiple images of us to go with the multiple tracks we had done. Looked terrific on the screen. It could have made a really good special on PBS. We also did one at Louisiana Park outside Copenhagen, looking out on Malmo, Sweden. My Ship was shot on a fishing boat in the harbor, Fool on the Hill done with rain coming down with Bonnie inside looking out at Gene, Len, and myself wearing bright yellow slickers with hats to match. Guess you can tell how much I treasure our memories together, with music at the center of our personal lives, all interwoven in and around that."

The Singers Unlimited never got a Grammy award. Gene got one for vocal arranging.

Gene said, "We got nominations."

Bonnie said, "Bridesmaids."

Don said: "The Chicago Board of Governors finally got us a special little plaque. I treasure that one. It's as close as we got."

Bonnie said, "I went to the Grammy Awards when we were nominated. It was a big deal and it was fun."

I said, "There are so many award ceremonies nowadays. There are the Tony's in New York; there is the Director's Guild; there is the Actor's Guild Awards, which are just recent. There are the Screen Actors Guild; there is Country Music Awards; People's Choice; MTV; Golden Globe; Academy itself — every time you turn around there is an award. It's the entertainment industry's interminable self-congratulation"

Don said, "And Mozart never got an award. Did you ever think about how much red carpeting is used? Come spring time, it's just one show after another."

Len said, "I think they have a scream section for each one of those awards, and the minute somebody does something, they just say 'Cue 'em' and you get screams and that sort of thing."

I said, "It's a wonder they don't use laugh tracks. I tend to get pessimistic about the way our history is being erased by the broadcasting industry and the recording industry. The economic conditions that gave rise to the big band era don't exist anywhere. It's all changed. Do you have any images of where you see popular music going?"

Don said, "Not in terms of what we have talked about today. The big bands, the vocal groups that we knew and love, the musicians I played with in the Les Brown band for ten years, now that Les is gone, there is a rapid decline. We have more cancellations now than we have gigs. And that's because, I was telling Gene the other day, you lose your audience. All those people that are out there . .."

I said, "They get to be seventy or eighty."

Don said, "That's right. And you're losing those people. And when that happens, that is the end of that particular cycle."

Bonnie said, "TV is in everyone's homes and it has such an influence. There is no reference to the older music now. It's all geared to what sells. What is marketable is pop music, hip hop, whatever — alternative music. My children had to be taught by me. But ordinary American kids aren't hearing it on TV. I really believe that TV is the culprit, not radio because it is all programmed the same in each city with rock radio. I think that there is going to be a revolution with that, because kids are on the internet getting their music, and they aren't paying attention to the radio. When is Miles Davis on TV? Or even Pat Metheny?"

Don said: "There are bright spots. You can get very morose and really dark on this. There are a lot of good things going on out there. Maybe what we are talking about is the fact there just isn't a broad enough segment which embraces the things that we know and love. But if you go round to these wonderful music schools, starting with the University of Miami, Western Michigan in Kalamazoo, and all across the US, they have music schools like the University of North Texas that are turning out players, and now, singers — incredibly good. And they are all exposed to this wonderful music. They all love Gene Puerling and all the things that we have been a part of. So there is all of that movement going on, and as they go out into society, they either teach or become professional or whatever. That can help in a way. But is it enough? That is the question."

Gene said, "I still have in my mind doing one more project. In surround sound. But we would almost have to do that as a vanity thing — in hopes of selling it.

Bonnie said, "Are you serious? With us?"

I said, "Well, he isn't talking about anyone else."

Bonnie said, "Fantastic. Geez."

I said, "What is surround sound?"

Gene explained: "Well, it plays back through five or seven different speakers around the listener. It is really designed for DVD or movie sound channels."

Len said, "Does that mean I get my own channel?"

Bonnie said, "At last! Recognition!" And there was general laughter.

Gene said, "You are going to have to fight for it."

The career of The Singers Unlimited came to an end with the 1982 release of Easy to Love. Hans George Brunner Schwer gave different reasons for discontinuing the recordings. He said in liner notes to the boxed set of seven CDs that he and Gene Puerling feared they would go stale if they continued, but on at least one other occasion he said that the music business was changing and he could not see going forward. One of his friends told me that in recording jazz people, not only Oscar Peterson but also Duke Ellington, Clare Fischer, Dizzy Gillespie and many more, he had dispensed more money than was judicious.

Whatever the reason, any hope of restoring the collaboration ended when he was killed in a car crash.

So was Dick Marx. The respect and affection in which Dick was held remains undimmed. Don Shelton told me: "He was so great to all of us. He put all four of our daughters to work singing commercials with his son Richard. What an opportunity for them." Richard Marx is the very successful song writer and singer.

Dick left Chicago in 1987 to settle in Los Angeles, where he composed and orchestrated for film, often enhancing the scores of people far less talented than he. Don Shelton said: "I planned to have lunch with Dick in July of 1997. I had worked for him on a film. Alas, we got a call from his office about the accident in Vegas, on the way to Wisconsin. I was planning to visit him at the hospital in Las Vegas but when I called they told me he had been airlifted to Highland Park Hospital by his son Richard and his wife Ruth. So I never got to see him. Two of our daughters attended the memorial in Chicago. He was special in our lives."

Mine too. I did have lunch with him at about that time. It was in some restaurant in Westwood. Dick by now was in the Guinness Book of World Records: he and his production company had turned out 14,000 jingles. White-haired and white-bearded, he had all his old warmth, and he kept me helpless with laughter with tales of travails in the advertising jungle. I asked him to knock it off, save the stories for another lunch when I could have a tape recorder on the table and collect the stories into a Jazzletter. It was never to be.

I do remember one story he told me. He wrote the music for a commercial for Timex in which the drummer played a repeated figure on temple blocks to suggest a clock and the passage of time. When they finished what Dick thought was a good take, the advertising-agency guy said, "It's wrong!"

Dick said, "What's wrong with it?"

The guy said, "It's the drummer! He ticked when he should have tocked!"

The evening after we finished our taped oral history, Mark Masters, who had organized and supervised it, took us all - the men and their wives and Bonnie and her husband Tom Radke — to dinner at a pleasant Italian restaurant. I was struck by the atmosphere that surrounded the four singers. It was more than camaraderie, more than friendship. I thought: These people love each other.

At some point, I raised a wine glass and said, "Here's to Dick Marx."

Bonnie said, "And Audrey and Oscar."

Once or twice I noticed Len Dresslar's eyes growing misty. Following Gene's statement that he would like to do one more album, we were discussing possible repertoire.

Recently I asked Don Shelton if he thought Len knew he was terminally ill. Don replied: "Len knew he had some medical dealings but I certainly can't attest to his knowing of anything imminent, especially since he went out and purchased new audio equipment a few months after Claremont. He was elated, as he said in an email to all of us, about listening again to some old LPs he had not heard in ages as well as our TSU stuff. He was overjoyed and very positive."

But when I asked Gene Puerling if he thought Len knew during that last dinner, he said, in a very subdued voice, "Yes, I think so." And later, when I discussed it with Don, he said that on thinking it over, he too thought Len knew.

If he did, he knew that the one last album Gene was dreaming of was never going to be made.

He died six and a half months later, on October 16. 2005, at his home in Palm Springs, California. Newspapers and television broadcasters said that the voice of the Jolly Green Giant had been stilled, and almost nothing of his other accomplishments.

And with that great low voice gone, The Singers Unlimited can never again exist. In a sense it never did exist. In a way all the tracks, up to twenty-seven of them, were like Bonnie's ghost tracks. The group itself was a ghost: it was conjured magically into being by the talent of four extraordinarily gifted people and a brilliant, patient, rich record-company owner and engineer, there in the beauty of the Black Forest.

Our revels now are ended.
These our actors. As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air....
We are such stuff as dreams are made on 
And our little life is rounded with a sleep.
— Shakespeare, The Tempest”

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