Saturday, 1 July 2017

"Virtually mistake-free": a doo wop group in the studio

Following on from the previous post about the Flamingos' Golden Teardrops, here are two accounts of the process of recording a doo wop group in the 50s.

One comes from Du-Wop, the 1987 memoir by Johnny Keyes of the Magnificents briefly mentioned in that post, the other from an interview given by Red Holloway - who backed the Magnificents as well as the Flamingos - to the UK-based Blues Unlimited magazine in 1975. It is included in a recent collection of interviews published by University of Illinois Press - see details at the end.

Keyes' book may not be very long and has lots of photos to fill it out, but it's an invaluable record, nevertheless - at least, I haven't read anyone else who goes into the specifics like him. He describes the lead-up to the Magnificents' first recording session (which produced Up On the Mountain) - and although, as with the Flamingos, there is a great deal of preparation, it's not all conducted in camera:
The four songs had been well rehearsed. The Group had spent the last few months with this material. We worked on it daily. When we weren't singing the songs in our manager's three-room apartment, we were in Studio B at the radio station practicing while [the Magnificent] Montague was on the air. Our rehearsals weren’t always held indoors. Sometimes we would go outdoors and rehearse in the park. One of the locations we used was at the base of the statue near Stony Island, on the Midway, near the University of Chicago ... People passing by in their automobiles would do double takes at the sight of four teenaged young men singing and doing dance routines in front of a marble statue, being yelled at by a gray-haired man. 
Finally there is a rehearsal the day before the session in bandleader Al Smith's basement. When the drummer complains about the cold, Smith points to a small wood-burning heater:
"You'll feel it in minute. It just takes a while. I've been gone all day and the fire had to be re-lit. Can't you see it burning?"
The wily Smith had placed a candle in the back.

There follows a detailed account of how the musicians developed an arrangement with rather more care than a doo wop group could expect on live gigs - though there is, literally, a price to pay:
It took two or three hours for the band to learn the tunes. They listened to the Group sing the songs. After listening a couple of times, the piano player, Horace Palm, wrote down the chord changes. Next, they wrote the pattern of the song by noticing where the breaks were, how many bars in the intro, how many verses before the turnaround into the bridge, how many verses after the bridge and whether or not to repeat the phrase until the song would be faded by the engineer the next day when it was played at the session.

Finally, they put together an arrangement that was comprised of a combination of the vocal arrangement sung by the Group and a few hom riffs. Every now and then, they said things like, "Oh yeah. I know what that is. It's that old 'I've got rhythm' thing happening with the changes."

"Right, right, I‘ve got it now. And in that four-bar interlude we can play a 'we want Cantor' phrase underneath in unison."

"That’ll work," says one horn man to the other.

We, of course, had no earthly idea what they were talking about at that stage of the game. So, we laughed, just looked at each other and laughed. The joke was on us because those "head" arrangements they were discussing in double-talk came from our heads, and we paid for them with our record royalties.
The other side of the appropriated coin is presented by Red Holloway, who sees doowoppers as unschoolable kids:
The vocal groups? Woop-dee-dee-woop-woop, wow-woo, they didn’t sound like nothin’ to me, but I mean, after you play with them awhile they kinda grow on ya. You know what they reminded me of? You have a bunch of youngsters and these youngsters are really trying to learn how to sing. Say, for instance, you have your kids, and to keep them out of mischief you say, “Hey, well, we got a little ole group here and it’s just more or less for amusement.” Well, that’s the way most of these vocal groups sound. Off-key guys, damn.

And as far as format, when I say a format, you couldn’t have a “Now we’re gonna do this course and then after you do the first course, fellas, then we have the lead singer sing this and that, then you go back in the harmony here.” Sh*t, on each course they’d have some different sh*t. They would sing the words, but the harmony was different all the time. So you couldn’t really write an arrangement. You would have to write basically unison for the band and let them sing their own harmonies, ’cause you couldn’t give ’em no notes. ’Cause they couldn’t remember them, a lot of ’em. Then you’d find the Spaniels, that was a fairly polished group. 
Interesting to note that exception: Billy Shelton, who joined the original Spaniels when they reformed in the 90s, taught Pookie Hudson and Gerald Gregory to sing in a glee club at their high school in Gary, Indiana; he, in turn, had benefited from working with his mother, Lil Shelton, who had a background as a blues singer and was then teaching church choirs.

It's a reasonable bet that the Flamingos would also have escaped Holloway's "off-key guys" accusation - or maybe they were one of the groups who "kinda grew" on him; he was to back them on several sessions, either as bandleader or part of "an Al Smith aggregation", according to the Chance Records website maintained by Pruter et al.

Holloway goes on to detail the particular frustrations of recording:
To record with? Oh, man, god damn! You’d just get tired of playing the same sh*t over. You’d do maybe twenty takes, twenty-five takes. God damn, you’d get so sick of that sh*t. Now, here’s what would happen with groups of that type. To cut down on studio time we would rehearse in Al Smith’s basement a week, every day from twelve o’clock till six at night, every day the week before. Then we’d go into the studio. Well, we’d know our part. You know, you’re doing this basically for a living, so once you get accustomed to playing or reading music, you memorize all that sh*t. And you’d get tired of going over and over again, then get in the studio and go over ha, ha, man, god damn! So what we would do, we would get ourself a fifth of liquor or something and plenty of sandwiches, and we’d get all soused up at the recording session. That’s when we started gettin’ hip and started makin’ tracks.

The union didn’t allow you to make a track for groups, but we just got tired of f*cking with it. So we’d make a track, we’d sit there and let them go over and over again with the track. Then when they get through, think they got their part, we’d go in and play the live session. See, at that time, they was only paying $41.25. So if you’re makin’ tracks, you could do your whole session in an hour, musician-wise. So that means no overtime for the musicians. So in order to make our pay we’d have to be there, and if they keep messing up we’d just have to stay there until they got it right. When the track is over, it’s up to the bandleader to make sure the track was cut out. Now, if they used the track, which was illegal, we wouldn’t say nothing. Like, we was recordin’ all the time for Vee-Jay, so we wouldn’t say nothing, because we was gettin’ our money from Vee-Jay. We would get paid for overtime that we would do, but didn’t have to sit there and play it over and over again. The trumpet players would lose their lip, they playing so many times!
The above is, of course, a distillation of the experience of many sessions; Johnny Keyes gives us the viewpoint of a nervous and inexperienced singer:
[The Magnificents] were recording what was to later become one of the biggest selling records on the [Vee Jay] label. But, it was taking them all night. The vocal quartet was agonizing through take 11 of the same song. And they were leaning toward take number 12, from the looks registered on the faces in the control room high above the Group and the six weary back-up musicians on the session.

"OK, let's try another one fellas. Move in on the mike a little, mid-range voices," a voice boomed through the playback speakers. It was Bill Putnam, the staff engineer. He was also one of the faces that was glaring down at us from the control room.

I've never thought of this before now, but do you suppose that there is something intimidating about a room called the control room? I mean, it's bad enough that this was our first session, our first time being in a recording studio. There was no experience to compare it with. Few people had tape recorders in the homes in 1956. I don't know of any Group that used one in its rehearsals. So, the whole scene made us tense. We walked into a sound-proof room, where it was hard at times to hear the man next to you because the atmosphere was dead. There was no echo, and you'd forget the words and mess up a take.

In the middle of the next take, the drummer breaks when he shouldn’t have, meaning you have to start over.

Montague is screaming, ”What's the matter, boy? Forget the words again, boy? Let's get this one over with. I'm sick of it."
You may have noticed earlier that Keyes said that the Magnificents only rehearsed in Al Smith's basement on the day before the session, whereas Holloway's claim is that groups would rehearse there for a solid week (assuming the candle ruse worked that long).

This disparity may simply reflect the fact that the Magnificents were something of a special case: they were being managed by the charismatic and influential DJ "the Magnificent Montague" (after whom they were named), who could be relied on to get good results: "He would coach the lead singer like a drill sergeant does Marine recruits," says Keyes, and it's Montague who is effectively running the session, rather than Vee Jay's A&R man Calvin Carter, as would normally be the case.

Back to the grind:
After about 13 takes, the Group had finally recorded one that was virtually mistake-free. And it would go on to be mastered, pressed, distributed, and sold. But, this process seemed like it took so long to happen. A recording session in the early 50s differed tremendously from the recording sessions of today. with all of the high-tech hardware and multi-track digital whatcha-ma-callits. We did it with the basics, one track. Everybody recorded at one time. If a horn player makes a mistake, you stop and start again.

Take two might be sounding pretty good, then the drummer misses a lick. Now, it's take three and you've still got a studio full of people, each one of whom is capable of making a mistake that will cause everyone else to start over again. The engineer can even be guilty of this a time or two.

"That was a good one. OK, let's take one more so I can have two to choose from."

You start at the top and if you're lucky, the next take is as good or better than the last one. But, little did you know, the engineer asked for another take because he forgot to push the record button. So, a 50s Du-Wop session was quite an ordeal in one sense, but it was always a very interesting experience.
 Keyes is right, by the way, about Up On the Mountain being virtually mistake-free: there is a slight stumble at the very end on the line "Ain't got no bread."

Sadly, Up On the Mountain was a hit which the group could not repeat; a sequel in the same style was released much too late, says Keyes, who also recalls a prescient warning about the ease of that initial success:
I can remember Calvin Carter saying to us more than twice, "Fellas, the worst thing that can happen to a Group happened to you. Your first record was a hit. The first time you cut a record, it hit. That's bad. You haven't paid enough dues yet. Matter of fact, you haven't paid any."

I suppose he was trying to make us understand that we didn't have the experience to go with the hit record. We did not know that we did not know. We didn't crawl before we walked. We just walked in, signed a contract, cut a hit record and thought that it was the way it was supposed to be done. But after the record got cold, it became clear to us what he meant. We recorded several records for several different labels, under several different names and didn't come close to selling enough to qualify as hits.
You can read more about the ups and downs of Johnny Keyes' career in Du-Wop and in Unca Marvy's page on the Magnificents. One detail in the latter leapt out at me, as a possible source of pleasure and consolation to Red Holloway. Sometime around 1957, Johnny Keyes says, "When there was no more money and no more gigs, then we practiced and got good!"

Before closing, it should also be noted that although the Flamingos' and the Magnificents' first recordings are separated by only three years, that's enough for a sea change in terms of backing, as a piece about Chance Records by Robert Pruter and Robert L. Campbell makes clear:
Jazz-style accompaniment would never again be as prominent in doowop as it was on the [Chance] recordings ... One reason is that during that time, jazz combos and doowop groups appeared together in nightclubs, and the arrangements used in clubs were also used n the recording studio. Another reason is that the recording industry of 1950-1954 had yet to deal with rock'n'roll. In 1955, when doowop groups emerged as rock'n'roll entities, the record labels - notably Chess and Vee-Jay in Chicago - consciously worked with their session men, most of whom had jazz backgrounds, to change their accompaniment style from jazz to rock 'n' roll.  
It's another reason why the Flamingos' early recordings bear such repeated listening, which I think is my cue to get on with another post in the series exploring their Chance sides.

Related post:

Lost Lover - The Magnificents


Du-Wop by Johnny Keyes, Vesti Press, 1987
Blues Unlimited: Essential Interviews from the Original Blues Magazine edited by Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe and Mark Camarigg, University of Illinois Press, 2015

Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks: the Magnificents 

Stop-Time! Fall 1999 issue, Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, Chicago

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