© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“... when … [The Singers Unlimited] came into being [in 1967], it numbered four singers, Bonnie Herman at the top of the harmony, Len Dresslar at the bottom, Don Shelton, and Gene Puerling, the group's arranger and musical director, in the middle. They would make fourteen albums for Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer's MPS label, each of which stunned the jazz world when it was first issued, and did so again when they were reissued in 1997 in a boxed set of seven CDs.”
- Gene Lees
There are many ways to make Jazz.
As an instrumentalist, I gravitate toward Jazz that is played by hornmen, keyboardists and string players.
But one form of making the music that has always impressed me and left me a bit mystified [I can’t hold a tune even in the shower] is Jazz made by vocal groups.
Dating back to Bing Crosby and The Rhythm Boys with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, swing era groups such as the Pied Pipers and the Andrew Sisters and modern age groups including the Mel-tones, the Four Freshmen, the Hi-Lo’s, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, The Double Six of Paris and, more recently, with The Singers Unlimited, vocal group Jazz has had a long association with the music.
The Singers Unlimited, in particular, have always fascinated me because they combined vocal Jazz group excellence with cutting edge recording technology to create a mind-boggling array of sonorities and textures in their music; what one reviewer refers to as the “apotheosis of vocal harmony.”
I’ve been a fan of The Singers Unlimited for many years but I had only a vague idea of their background and didn’t technically understand how they created their distinctive sound until I read the following description of the group’s evolution and explanation of how they produce their music in the two-part feature about them that Gene Lees wrote for his Jazzletter.
There is so much information in Gene’s two-part essay that the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought perhaps it would be best to present it in four segments for ease in preparation and absorption.
Vol. 23 No. 11
Ghosts of the Black Forest
“On a July day in 1967, a magic moment occurred in American music. An idea passed between two men on the Michigan Avenue bridge over the Chicago River, just south of the point where the street passes between the Wrigley Building on your left, looking like a tall white wedding cake, and the Chicago Tribune, an improbable Gothic tower on the right.
The men were Don Shelton, a veteran saxophonist and singer, and Len Dresslar, known to the public as the voice ho-ho-ho of the Jolly Green Giant but a man of far wider skills than that. And that conversation led to the formation of what many people consider the most remarkable vocal group in the history of the United States or any other country. The group, when it came into being, numbered four singers, Bonnie Herman at the top of the harmony, Len Dresslar at the bottom, Don Shelton, and Gene Puerling, the group's arranger and musical director, in the middle. They would make fourteen albums for Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer's MPS label, each of which stunned the jazz world when it was first issued, and did so again when they were reissued in 1997 in a boxed set of seven CDs.
The albums were:
1. In Tune, with the Oscar Peterson Trio, 1971.
2. The Singers Unlimited: A Capella, also 1971.
3. The Four of Us, 1973.
4. Invitation, with the Art Van Damme Quintet, 1974.
5. Feeling Free, with the Patrick Williams orchestra, 1975.
6. The Singers Unlimited: A Capella II, also 1975.
7. A Special Blend, orchestral writing by Clare Fischer, 1976.
8. Sentimental Journey, with the Robert Farnon orchestra, 1976.
9. Friends, with Patrick Williams, 1977.
10. Just in Time, with the Roger Kellaway Cello Quintet, 1977.
11. The Singers Unlimited with Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass, 1979.
12. Eventide with the Robert Farnon Orchestra, 1979.
13. A Capella III, 1980.
14. Easy to Love, 1982.
The set is still available from third-party sellers, and the three a capella albums have been issued as a separate set, which you can get as an import. And there is a Christmas album.
Each of the albums was recorded in exactly one week, usually two tracks a day, with all four singers unrehearsed and sight-reading the extremely difficult vocal charts. The group cannot be reconstituted: it is gone. In a way it should never have existed at all, and it wouldn't have but for the advances in recording technology and the support of Brunner-Schwer.
With the increasing use of magnetic recording tape in the late 1940s, all sorts of things became possible, including overdubbing. An early example is the guitar work of Les Paul and Mary Ford. Vocal overdubbing became fairly common, giving us Patti Page's The Tennessee Waltz. In 1959 the Double Six of Paris had their debut, using jazz themes to which the group's leader and founder, Mimi Perrin, added lyrics. By overdubbing, the six expanded to twelve voices. And then there was the hit group Don Elliott had called the Chipmunks, all the voices overdubbed at slow tape speed and then speeded up. In the case of the Singers Unlimited, their extraordinarily complex arrangements and overdubbing took them at times up to twenty-seven voices.
Recording engineers soon learned to record string sections twice, to get a larger sound. In due course, the practice of "sweetening" came into being. A jazz group or a singer with rhythm section would record in multi-track, and afterwards an orchestra would be added on the open tracks, all of this involving the use of headphones. Andre Previn, perhaps in rebellion, once made an album called No Headphones. The problem headphones present for many singers, and even instrumentalists, is one of intonation. Frank Sinatra hated headphones and wouldn't use them.
But for singers who work in the advertising field, the "jingles" business, headphones are a way of life, a commonplace working tool. And jingles singers are among the best in the world. The good ones are demon sight-readers with superb intonation. Over the years, in the studios of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, I acquired the most enormous respect for them.
A great many jazz musicians gravitated to the jingles field. They too were in demand for their flexibility and sight-reading skills. One of the best was pianist and composer Dick Marx, who became the king of that profession for the midwest. He had the house trio, with bassist and violinist John Frigo, at Mr. Kelly's, an elegant night club in the Rush Street area, and as such he accompanied a long list of singers, some of them great singers. Then he went into the jingles business, where he became soaringly successful.
Dick wrote the music to Ken-L-Ration's My Dog Is Better than Your Dog and Aren't you glad you use Dial, among many. All the members of The Singers Unlimited were veterans of the Chicago jingles business, whose appeal in part is the money it pays.
Performers in that field not only get the fee for the job, they receive residual payments when the commercials are played on radio and television. Len Dresslar, who was the voice of Dig 'Em the Bullfrog in the Sugar Smacks ad, and that of Snap in the Snap, Crackle and Pop trio in the Rice Krispies commercials. Len once said his residuals put his two kids through college
But as well as being veterans the jingles business, The Singers Unlimited were also the product of the Hi Lo's, since their arranger and music director, Gene Puerling, held these roles in that earlier quartet.
The personnel of the Hi-Los evolved into Puerling, Don Shelton, who also played the saxophones and still does, Clark Burroughs, who gave the group a distinctive sound with his ability to sing extremely high passages, and Robert Morse. The group made some exquisite records, including The Hi Los and All That Jazz with the Marty Paich Dektette. Clare Fischer was their pianist and instrumental arranger during much of the group's life. They disbanded in 1964.
After the Hi-Los, Don Shelton and Len Dresslar became part of a group called the J's with Jamie, who were among the best jingles singers in Chicago. "They were the darlings of the advertising community," Don said. Joe Silvia headed the group, and his wife Jamie was one of its members. Don continued:
"One night in July of 1967, Joe and Jamie announced that they were moving to New York and they didn't invite Len and me to go. We were doing a Hamm's Beer session at studio A at Universal, and I ran up behind Len and stood on my tiptoes, because he is the Jolly Green Giant.
"I said, 'Len! I have an idea! Meet me for breakfast!' I had to figure, how are we going to do this? There's got to be a new group to take the place of the J's with Jamie. Gene Puerling had been in town for the last year just sort of freelancing, trying to get a group going, but we were so heavily entrenched with the J's that it didn't work and he had gone back to California. I said, I’ll call Gene, and then I have to call and see if Bonnie Herman might be available.' I called her manager, Ralph Craig, and he said, 'Boy, this is your lucky day.' Her contract had just expired with the Dick Noel Singers. And I said, 'Do nothing until you hear from me. Put her on hold right now and I will get back to you within the hour.'
"Len and I were crossing the Chicago River at the Wrigley Building, and I said, 'What would you think about The Singers Unlimited?' There had been a group in L.A. called The Singers Incorporated, which I loved. And I said, 'Unlimited — we have to be so many things doing jingles.'
"And he said, 'Sounds good to me.' I called Gene. I said, 'There has been a real shake-up in Chicago. Can you come back and talk to Bonnie, Len and me?' So he flew back. I called Ralph Craig back, and he said, 'Bonnie's available,' and I said 'Good. Have her meet us at Len Dresslar's house tomorrow afternoon and we'll go from there.'
"And that is how it all got started on a hot, steamy July afternoon in 1967. Then we started doing commercials."
Len Dresslar said, "Gene had these friends with a small advertising agency in San Francisco, and when we all got together, it was a case of: This is a hell of a group!"
Gene said, "We sang about one chorus or something."
Len said, "It was something like that, and then, Yes! That's what it was. You knew!"
Len said, "We learned how to utilize these four voices together at Audio Finishers, a little studio. We had multiple tracks, and we would record the same track again just to enhance the sound, and the advertisers loved it. The guy at the studio, Murray Allen, called Gene and he said, 'You've got to write something so we can learn how to use this damn thing.' It was an Ampex eight-track. And Gene wrote Fool on the Hill. We'd get over there, and we'd finish maybe, sixteen bars in a whole evening."
"It took thirty-six hours," Len said. "How many tracks were on there? We must have done sixteen or twenty."
Don Shelton said, "Ping-ponging it."
Gene said, "Do one and two, and then combine them on track three. Then re-record on track one."
Len said, "That is why Fool On the Hill has such a massive, fat sound."
Don said, "It was the first tune we ever made." He said to Gene: "You played The Shadow of Your Smile for Joe and Jamie. And Joe thought it was 'too modern.' Gene put it back in his satchel and said, 'Oh, okay.'"
Len said, "And it was incredible. We decided that we were going to have a coming-out party. And here's the old Ambassador Hotel sitting up there, and they had the Guild Hall right across the street. Sam Cohen said, 'Don't worry about it. We'll take it over.' So they took it over and started off by sending a card to every advertising person in Chicago. It had a tuning fork on it, and it said, 'Can you name this?' We got the most outrageous and wonderful answers to it. Another card said that we are having a party and you're invited.
Don said, "A series of teasers went out for several weeks, all building up to this October day of '67. We rented two Voice of the Theater speakers."
Len continued, "Well, the guys stood at the entrance to the Guild Hall on either side of a lanky, lovely young lady in black tights and black top, wearing a black cap with a big red feather sticking up from it, holding a placard that said 'The Singers Unlimited.' It was out of sight!
"We started out after having hors d'oeuvres and cocktails on the stage in the Guild Hall, and watched the speakers play our demo tape for which Gene had written a lot of fictitious commercials. After that, we sang for the music producers live, in their offices, just so they would hear there was going to be a group, not a vacuum. As soon as they knew that Joe and Jamie were leaving town, we had to fill that gap really quickly. We sang for Dick Marx, and people around town, and they all breathed a sigh of relief. Dick Marx made the comment, 'I was worried that you and Len were leaving town too!' We assured him that we would have a group.
"That got us started in advertising. That was our thrust at the beginning, 1967, 1968. Then, we decided to do a Christmas album. We were going from studio to studio — in demand like crazy. It was the most exhilarating time of my career.
"We would go from studio to studio, sometimes having to rush across town. We were so much in demand people would actually wait for us. If we couldn't make a three o'clock because we were booked from two to four, they'd say, 'Okay, come when you can.' No way can that happen these days, not even close. We were so blessed to have that kind of working relationship with our music producers. It was fabulous."
Len said, "We knew inherently that we had a really great thing. It wasn't just the commercials. There was a hell of a sound. The four of us created something that was unique."
"We were like athletes in the studio," Bonnie said. "We were singing all the time, sheet music in front of us every hour, someone else's composition or whatever. It had a lot to do with what we were thrown into — a lot of situations in sessions in Chicago. So we were prepared, we were all at the same speed.
"We'd finished an album. The pages would just be flying. We never memorized anything, so at the end of the week, you just felt exhilarated because you were reading fast."
Gene said, "I'll tell you how these people work. I used to send them the vocal arrangements months ahead in hopes that this would give them enough time to really lock it in. The next day, we start recording at eight in the morning. So I figure I'd sent it to them and everything is going to be fine. And I said, 'Well, you've looked at it before.' It turned out that they'd never looked at those things at all."
Bonnie Herman was born in Chicago to Jules Herman, lead trumpet player with Lawrence Welk, and Lois Best, the first Champagne Lady with Welk. They married and settled in Chicago, then moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, when Bonnie was five. Bonnie said, "Then he decided, during a musician's strike in the late-1940s, to start his own band, which was a brave thing to do with a couple of babies. He was a farm boy from North Dakota who played his way through college. He's still going strong. Retired his band at the age of eighty-six. So I was the daughter of well-known people growing up.
"I took classical piano. My teacher was Winnifred Bolle, pianist with the Minneapolis Symphony. She was just the pastor's wife, to me I did not know that I was getting a really good education that way. I was in a school district that loved music. The superintendent was a musician. And the school would get these people from Concordia College and St. Olaf College to teach. The biggest thing to be in our school was in an a capella choir. So I had this training for singing alto. I never sang lead. At the same time I was in a three-girl vocal group, the Debutantes. We won a Coca Cola contest that took us to New York. I was fourteen. I came home, I was just a normal kid. I was a cheerleader; played in the band; and this choir."
I asked: "What did you play in the band?"
She laughed. "Snare drums. But don't tell my husband, because he thinks it's a joke." She is married to the fine Chicago drummer Tom Radtke.
"But that's another thing that added to my musical education. I was reading all these percussion parts. So I had this conglomeration of musical influences, including the big-band music at home with my family. There wasn't enough jazz in my background in Minnesota. There wasn't any in my school. That was regrettable. There was this one guitar player who would come over and play Easy Street and teach me a few songs. Then I started to sing commercials up there, because as a freshman at the University of Minnesota, I was in a campus production and a producer happened to walk by where I was singing. I did a Dairy Queen commercial, and that was it. Then I started flying into Chicago a couple of months later. I remember going home and calling my dad and saying, 'Daddy, this man wants me to sing for a commercial.' He knew him. So he suggested that he come over to the sorority house, where it was safe. And I auditioned. Two day's later I did the commercial. It ran all over the country.
"Then, I was heard by Ralph and Doris Craig, whom Don mentioned earlier. They brought me to Chicago seven months later. I kept flying back and forth to sing for various producers in Chicago. I never knew studio work existed. My parents did not want me to be in the business. My mother kept asking me — wouldn't I like to be a nurse? They knew that for a woman, music would probably be of a hard life.
"In eighth grade, while my dad had some hit records on the radio in Minneapolis, my science project was 'How to make a record.' I was always fascinated with the process. So he took me down to the local studio, the Kay Bank Studios, where he recorded. They took me through and showed me the whole thing. And they gave me all these acetates after showing me how they did it. And the acetates were the J's with Jamie. A commercial for Northwest Orient Airlines.
"Don wasn't there in Chicago yet. You were a young whippersnapper. Who knew that in a matter of five years we would be together singing and that I would have a studio career? But that's how far back my interest was. So on the Dairy Queen production, it was fantastic: this little room, musicians, and a microphone. I never liked live performing. But in a studio, it was calm. So that was my love.
"My folks are my biggest supporters. We are on the same wave-length, because we are all musicians. But it was really because of what they saw women go through. Studio work was just an ideal situation for me."
I said, "Public performing is hard. Unless you become a big star, and you're working at the upper level of it. You're going to have night club owners making passes at you, the money's lousy."
Bonnie said, "And the loneliness of it."
I said, "Jeri Southern hated the life, and quit, and began teaching voice and piano."
"I never would have pursued anything like that. I often think, What would have happened? What would I have been doing had I not made this move? I transferred to Northwestern University and immediately got busy in Chicago. Don and I came the same month, February, 1964.
"Things just happen. It was just meant to be. And then, I think of all the training and the a capella. Minnesota is a hotbed of choral activity. That was very lucky for me to be in that environment."
Don Shelton said, "No vibrato either. So you had lots of straight pure tones."
"Yes. And also my dad was a big one with that — and big on pitch. He always said to me, 'The least you can do is be in tune.' And, 'If you are ever going to practice piano, practice it right. Just play well.' My parents were fantastic.'
I said, "That's another thing we have never even discussed in this past two days — the bossa nova singing, the straight tone. None of this would work with vibrato on it."
Len Dresslar said, "No, it would not." The others brightly agreed with him. "It depends on who you are. Now, Bonnie used it very discreetly."
I said, "At the end of the tone, she did a terminal vibrato, and very slight."
Don said, "To warm the phrase up at the end."
This perhaps requires a little explanation. It was long assumed that vibrato was necessary in popular music, and in classical music too for that matter, whether in instrumental or vocal music. This was not always so. In the baroque period, a terminal vibrato was used. That is to say, the violinist or other player would start a note with straight tone and then add vibrato as it progressed. This disappeared from music. As far as I know, Louis Armstrong initiated it in jazz, and in later years, at least with very good, very controlled singers, it became not uncommon. It takes effort to develop a good vibrato and control it, but it takes even more control to sing without it. And if it is not very much in tune, it sounds hideous. In The Singers Unlimited, it became critical because of the nature of the harmonies Gene used, frequently involving close intervals.
Len said, "One of the really perfect things is when you have a lead horn that you can tune to, and maintain purity. It makes it a hell of a lot easier. And Bonnie is that lead horn."
Gene said, "Many times I would say that it was a very acceptable take, and she would say 'Let’s just do one more.' She would do that a lot — only because she wanted it to be the best ever."
Len said "Just right on the money. That was the way we worked. I think all of us were geared into that — that whole concept that you get as close to perfection as you can."
Bonnie said, "Now-a-days, with the computer and Pro Tools and everything, our records, to me, sound innocent. Now, a friend of mine — a producer for a well-known act, a singer — said that maybe ninety times in one vocal or even in between syllables, it is common to edit.
"And you just line it up, mathematically or however you want to put it. If you're entry is too late, or you come in too early, you don't do it again. You just fix it. So I often wonder, if Hans Georg were still recording, would he have gone for the latest technology?
Gene said, "I don't think so."
Bonnie concurred: "I don't think so either."
Len said: "He was too much of a purist."
Pro Tools is a piece of equipment that makes it possible to fix an out-of-tune phrase, or even single notes. This baffled me at first, since I thought back to the era of recording tape when the only way you could raise the pitch was to run the tape a little faster, which raised it even in the accompaniment. But recording is now digital, it is mathematical, and the pitch of even one or two notes can be altered without affecting the background. On the last Academy Awards broadcast, Itzhak Perlman played very out of tune. In the recording studio, his solos could be "fixed" but not on live television. It is thus almost impossible to tell from records whether any of the new young idols can sing or not.
Bonnie continued: "And people used to criticize us for punching in and correcting things. It makes us seem absolutely primitive. It's there, and the imperfections are sort of endearing now — even the worst!"
Gene said, "I don't hear any imperfections."
"We tried so hard to end syllables together," Bonnie said. But, every now and again, it was difficult to come in on a rubato section — to kind of feel it, and come in."
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Through overdubbing, they could have as many voices as they wanted, in effect a large choral group with the four of them singing multiple parts, the whole thing lent a special sound by Bonnie Herman on the top of the harmony and Len Dresslar singing a very distinctive bottom. They produced a huge sound, with textures ranging from beautiful simple unisons to dense harmonies, including seconds or even minor seconds when one of the lines Gene wrote called for it. These are the tones that the late Hugo Friedhofer called "grinders", and they add spice to the harmony. What was amazing is that they could sing them uncannily in tune.”
- Gene Lees
Vol. 23 No. 11
Ghosts of the Black Forest
Part One Continued
“My conversations with four members of the group occurred in February, 2005, when I did interviews with them for the Jazz Oral History Practicum Project at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. The talks continued over two days. The meeting amounted to a reunion: the four had not seen each other in a long time. I hadn't seen them since a record date in Los Angeles in early April 1977.
Len Dresslar said, "Don, let's get to you next."
Don responded: "Well, I wasn't going to be a nurse."
Bonnie laughed, "Neither was I."
Gene said, nodding toward Don, "While we are doing this self-congratulating, I need to give kudos to this guy because he has never been really recognized on our albums. He has had more to do — all of the instrumental solos and things — in addition to vocal solos than any of us. He has really been an important person in our group."
"Oh my, yes," Bonnie said.
Don smiled and resumed: "I was born in Texas. My father was a musician — alto sax and clarinet player — in East Texas. When he was a young lad, he was playing records by the likes of Harry James, from Beaumont, Texas. Next thing you know, he was with Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall. I said, 'Wow, my dad should have been a professional musician.' But the Depression came along and he decided to stay with his $75-a-month job at Texas Power and Light. That's what he did, his entire career. When he would play his weekend jobs — I was just three and four years old — he would come home and on Sunday morning, he would open up his alto case and clean his horn. I have it at home now in Santa Monica, a Buescher gold-plated alto, in the case with green velvet lining. It smells the same now as when I was three years old. I open the case and I am that tall again. It just gives me a great feeling.
"My mother was not musical, but they were both extremely supportive. At an early age he tried to get me on clarinet because that's the only thing that I could possibly hold. Alto was 'way too big for me. My arms were so short. I couldn't play the bottom half of the clarinet. So my father says, 'Okay, we'll wait until you can.' So I kept listening to stuff and taking it in. And then one day he put it together and voila!" Don sang a line. "I can play it! That was my beginning. So it was clarinet and classical for years, contests every year in New Mexico and Texas.
"Fifth grade we moved to New Mexico. I kept practicing clarinet and going to summer band school over at Texas Tech College, every summer. That would be my real shot in the arm for culture. Getting to read manuscript music of Ein Heldenleben. Dr. A. A. Harding would come down from the University of Illinois for the last two weeks. I got to set up with the principal clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic, who was my teacher, and play with him in the faculty band. So I would make great strides in the summer, and then go home, and all winter listen to the Cities Service Band of America — and get so excited."
In the 1930s and '40s, network radio carried a considerable amount of live classical music each week, including such programs as the Voice of Firestone, the Bell Telephone Hour, and Cities Service. Cities Service was a gasoline company, now vanished.
Don said, "All of my early career was just playing clarinet, all the while chomping at the bit. As I said, my father was playing Harry James, Artie Shaw, and Benny Goodman. I'm playing Richard Strauss and all my classical things — that I was loving — and the two were amalgamating, as it were, in me. Then, 1949 came along, and Gene Krupa came to town for the Lions Club. They weren't supposed to let minors in because they were serving alcohol. My dad said, "You don't understand. My son needs to hear this." They said, 'Okay, but you must monitor him carefully.' They let me in. That was the first big band I had ever seen. Great band: George Roberts, Ray Triscari, Urbie Green, Boomie Richman. One of the trumpet players turned his music stand at an angle so that I could follow the manuscript all night. I was going crazy.
"After that, it was one big band after another coming to town: Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey. I was hooked totally then. I didn't give up classical but I just gathered in all of the swing things that I could get. I still didn't know alto saxophone until I graduated from high school in Hobbs, New Mexico, near Lubbock, Texas. I went into the Navy School of Music, in Washington DC. The Korean War was on and my parents were afraid that I would get into the Army and have to go to Korea and be in the infantry. The Navy band would come to town every year. We invited a couple of first chair players to our home for dinner. After dinner I played with them in the living room. Then, we would go hear them play. Again, I would go absolutely berserk. They were so good. We contacted those people, and they said, 'Yes. You should apply to the Navy School of Music.' That led to the U.S. Navy for three years.
"I wound up in Chicago at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. We took a band down to the Howard Miller Show on Chicago radio, WIND, one night, and there was Len Dresslar, singing and wearing a yellow sweater. He was the boy singer on the show, and I was in my Navy outfit. I did not know that years later, I would be singing with him, because all this time, I was not singing — well, only in church choirs.
"After I graduated from high school, I left the Navy and came back to Texas Tech where I had gone to summer band school, and where I felt comfortable. Then, I transferred to UCLA. That's when I met people in the music business — whose dads were in the business. There were vocal arrangers: Ian Freebairn-Smith, and Perry Botkin Jr. That's how we learned to sing vocal charts, down in the practice rooms at UCLA. I was a big Four Freshmen fan. When I was back at Texas Tech, I heard a Monitor broadcast — remember Monitor Radio on NBC? — and the Hi Lo's were on. And I went, 'Whoa, what is that?' So I ran out and got that album. And from then on, the Hi Lo's were front and center. One year, I took my wife on a trip to be home for Christmas, and we were coming to Tucson, Arizona, and the beautiful Arizona sunset. What should be playing on the radio but The Heather on the Hill, by the Hi Lo's. And as we were driving into the sunset, I said, 'Joan, if I could ever sing with a group like that, wouldn't that be something? I got home and my roommate says,
Gene Puerling called.' And, I went, What?'
Bonnie asked, "How did he know you?
"From singing groups. I was already singing in Los Angeles with Jud Conlon and doing motion pictures, and records, rock-and-roll dates, and then, the radio show with Rusty Draper. My career suddenly began to go — singing, playing, I just kept doing them both, and rehearsing with the Bob Florence band.
"Remember Lyle Ritz? The ukulele album that he did Barney Kessel? It was called How About Uke? We did the song with Red Mitchell on bass. I was playing flute and alto flute, and Lyle was playing ukulele. That was my first recording session. I was scared to death — Capitol Records, studio B. Then I started singing more. And as I said, Gene had called and said they were thinking about taking on a replacement but they were not sure. At the time, I was auditioning for the Modernaires, the Skylarks — all these vocal groups. And then Harry James had called and said, 'Do you want to play third alto to Willie Smith on a tour to South America?' My first big band offer. I was so excited.
"The Hi Lo's went on a tour to New York to do the Swing into Spring show, with Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman. I watched that show. They came back and said, 'We are ready to make a change.' And they started making auditions.
"So they really changed everything when I joined the Hi Lo's. I still played and sang. But then, our touring began to take more time. When we were doing Las Vegas's Tropicana, during the summer of 1963, I get a call from Chicago, and it's the J's with Jamie calling. They wanted to know if I would be interested in coming to Chicago. After much trepidation, I decided. Gene had moved to San Francisco, and we weren't able to rehearse every day, like we always did before. And the Beatles came on the scene. Our bookings began to be a little bit thin. It was changing. All my mentors were telling me that 'You need to go back and give these new opportunities a chance.' So, I went back to Chicago in February 1964. There was Len. They met me at the airport. That started my Chicago experience. I moved back and stayed twenty-five years. In 1988 I came back to Los Angeles, where I still do freelance playing and singing. It's been a wonderful move, because I am able to do things that I wasn't able to do in Chicago."
It was Len Dresslar's turn. Len was born in 1925 in St. Francis, Kansas. "My dad was a superintendent of schools. He got caught by the repertory shows that toured in the early twenties.
"They would do the shows there at the high school. And of course, in between, I was chosen — plus another lovely young lady — to entertain between two acts. They had to shove me on stage the first time. From then on, they had to pull me off. My mom was a singer, and she bet that I would be a singer as well. I am really glad for that, because she started me into a whole area of life that I really love. God knows what I would be doing now. So after the war, I came out of the Navy and went to the Conservatory in Kansas City. I met my wife there.
"I studied there and found this incredible teacher. A guy who was kind of a young Lauritz Melchior. We became good friends. And, after Nicki and I were married, we spent the summer with one of those rep shows before we went into New York. We and wound up working with a class act. There was a five-man singing group called the White Guards. During that time we continued to audition, and finally, we got into a South Pacific production. We did that for two and a half years. Then we went back to Chicago where this teacher was. I thought, I'm tired of this, I need a real job. Because we had a baby daughter.
"When we were with South Pacific we had a party at this big nightclub in South Chicago. I sang, and the owner said, 'If you ever want a job, come see me.' So I went back, and I got a job. I was a production singer. A scout from CBS happened to come in and hear me. And the next thing I knew, I got this offer from CBS to do a nightly television show. After five and a half years, CBS went from their fifteen-minute music shows to all-network talk. At that point, I did my first commercial. I got more out of that one Holsom Bread spot — they circulated all over the country with all of their subsidiaries. I think the first check was like $2,800. I thought, 'My god, I haven't had that much money in three months.' I just walked into the commercial business. From there it just migrated along with different groups and pickups. Until this J's with Jamie thing happened. When they moved to New York, it was the chance of a lifetime. I thought,'Wow, we have to do this!' And that's when Don started saying we have to get Gene in here and we have to get a girl singer. And of course Bonnie was it. All of the pieces fell together. I did a few concerts afterwards. Once I got with these guys, The Singers Unlimited, that was the pinnacle of my career."
Don Shelton interjected:
"I have to give Len all the recognition, all he could possibly use. My youngest daughter, Jennifer, who is very much into vocal jazz — she teaches and arranges and sings — came to me one day, in a very serious moment, and said, 'Dad, when all is said and done' — as much as she loves this group — 'it's all about Len.' And it is, it's all about Len."
Startled, Len said, "Holy heaven."
Don said, "When you listen to those records, I don't care — as great as Bonnie is in that whole thing — it comes down like this: what people hear is this 'Wahhhhh!' — this thing down on the bottom. On which, like a pyramid, we're all resting. It's just incredible. And the reason my daughter said that is because, at the college level and even less at high school, you don't have a bass. You got a bass at 'Bahhhh.'
That is about as low as they can go. So, when they try to do Gene's charts, Whoops! You've got to take an alternate. Either sing it an octave higher, or at least take the fifth above that. And it's not the root. Len was the root of the whole thing. I thought it was wonderful."
Obviously astounded, Len said, "Well, thank you so much! My God!"
I asked him, "How low can you go? "Generally, on a good day, I can pull a low C." Bonnie said, "We could never understand how he did it." I said, "Sinatra's bottom note was an F, maybe an E-flat." Don said, "Len's got another six notes below that."
It was now Gene's turn. He said, "I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin."
I said, "Along with Woody Herman and Hildegarde."
Gene said, "Yes. Hildegarde and I used to go together." That's a very inside Milwaukee joke: the flamboyant cabaret singer, on whom Liberace doted and modeled himself, was a lifelong lesbian. She died in 2005 at ninety-nine.
So when Gene said that, everybody laughed. He resumed:
"I was always interested in the vocal groups singing with harmonies. In junior high and high school I had proper vocal groups. When I was in junior high I had choirs, various groups for singing. I even had a popcorn truck in front of the theater on Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee. Delius, Bartok, and Stravinsky I liked very much, and I still do. I had a group called the Double Daters. It was my first mixed group, two girls who were just lovely, and they wore sweaters with 'DD' on them in the appropriate places. They couldn't sing, but it was a lot of fun. Two men and two women. We auditioned for Major Bowes, at the Milwaukee Theater."
In the 1930s, Major Edward E. Bowes had an "amateur" show heard on network radio. Frank Sinatra was heard on that show in a vocal group. I never encountered anyone who had a good word to say for Major Bowes.
Bonnie asked, "Did you make it?"
"Yes. And, we were there for two weeks. He was just terrible to work for. He was really cheap. After a week he fired us. He got bad reviews the Milwaukee Journal. So he hired us back in the second week. We got so bored with the whole thing that we used to throw furniture outside into the river and watch it go by.
"I got another group later on, called the Honey Bees, three guys and two women. That was the first foray into really thicker harmonies. We were singing at a local nightclub. I forget about what was after that. I guess I worked at Music City in California"
Don and Bonnie asked in unison, "What brought you to California?"
Gene said, "It was 1950. The Four Freshmen were in California a lot. I really like the Freshmen. I told them that I might move out to California. I decided, on January 1, when I bought a Chevrolet Bel Air, to leave. It was colder than hell. I drove for five days. It got warmer and warmer until you hit the Colorado River. Got to Los Angeles and met Clark Burroughs in the first couple of days. The high tenor voice, that stuff, and I guess doing some productions for the movies."
Bonnie said, "No kidding!"
"So, I decided to start the Hi Lo's. I called my old friend, from South [Divisional ?] High school, Bob Strassen. He was back in Milwaukee, just out of the service. I asked Bob if he wanted to come out to Los Angeles and do something. So it was Clark Burroughs, Bob, myself and Bob Morse. We rehearsed a lot together. I think we learned about thirty arrangements, rehearsing three hours every day. We lived together in an apartment.
Bonnie said, "Were all of these your arrangements?"
Gene said, "Yeah. There's a couple we recorded that were not mine, by Bill Thompson — a very good arranger. The first thing we recorded was They Didn't Believe Me. He had some of these vocal ideas that we incorporated into the Hi Lo's. He would do theatrics with punctuation marks like a trumpet or trombone might be, making Clark go way up. I may have been working at Music City record store at the time. Billy May would come through. Every day I would meet performers because the publishing houses were near there. I got to know these people. So we went to sing for them first. Then we went to sing for Jerry Fielding. He called Trend Records and he recorded four selections. The stuff went immediately. It was playing in every radio station. It was a good time for harmony and jazz recordings. We got a recording contract for a little company called Starlite Records. We brought Frank Comstock in as the arranger. It was in Goldstar Studios, three-track recording. I arranged everything for the Hi-Lo's, did a lot of albums for them. Then, we went to Columbia Records. We did some things there, and had my usual arguments with Mitch Miller."
Miller, the head of A&R at Columbia, was famous for pushing bad material at good singers, including most infamously Mama Will Bark on Frank Sinatra. Miller was interested only in sales, and I have always considered that he was one of the most insidious influences in putting American popular music on its long downward slide.
Gene continued, "He'd say, 'I want you to do this.' I said, 'No way.' We had about six LPs on Columbia Records. Then we went to Reprise Records; we had about three records with them, and worked with various people like Clare Fischer and Billy May. Then I think that's when I went up north."
Don Shelton said, "Yes. In 1963 you moved to San Francisco."
Gene said, "And then I went and tried Chicago. I started another group, but it was in direct competition with the people who would later form The Singers Unlimited. I was thinking, 'They're tough, because they're so talented.' In '67 I said this was enough. We just sang commercials, and my wife and I missed Marin County very much. We drove back. Two weeks later, I got this call from Don telling me what was happening in Chicago. He said, 'Could you come here?' So I left the next day."
Bonnie said, "That's amazing!"
Don said, "So, that's how we all got together."
Then came their experimental recording of The Fool on the Hill that would change all their lives.
Through overdubbing, they could have as many voices as they wanted, in effect a large choral group with the four of them singing multiple parts, the whole thing lent a special sound by Bonnie Herman on the top of the harmony and Len Dresslar singing a very distinctive bottom. They produced a huge sound, with textures ranging from beautiful simple unisons to dense harmonies, including seconds or even minor seconds when one of the lines Gene wrote called for it. These are the tones that the late Hugo Friedhofer called "grinders", and they add spice to the harmony. What was amazing is that they could sing them uncannily in tune.
Enter Audrey Morris.
Audrey, an icon of the Chicago music scene, is a superb quiet singer who leaves a song pure and undecorated although she certainly has the chops to do otherwise with it, since she is an excellent pianist. Oscar Peterson told me he copped some voicings from her. He is one of her close friends, and often would stay at her house with her and her late husband, bassist Stu Genovese.
Gene Puerling said, "She's a dear friend of ours. In turn, she is a dear friend of Oscar's who stayed at their house when he was in town, sleeping in the bed on the second floor. Audrey gave him The Fool on the Hill. He called Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer and said, "I'd like to do the next album with The Singers Unlimited. It's good stuff." And he got the okay — right away, I guess."”
© -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  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 &
VoL 23 Na 12
Ghosts of the Black Forest
“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."
© -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 &
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”