© -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."
To be continued in Part 2 ….