Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Singers Unlimited - Part 2

© -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

November 2003
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."”

To be continued ….


  1. Absolutely brilliant!!

  2. I would have loved to have seen each and all of them in televised scenes and recordings in the studio. this was have lasted a life time, alongside the recordings we have of their Magic Voices. Bless.


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