Monday, July 24, 2006

The Hi-Lo's I Presume



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What you see with your eyes closed is what counts.

---Lame Deer, Lakota sage

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest human battle ever and to never stop fighting.

---E.E. Cummings

What do you want to get enlightened for? You may not like it.

---Shunryu Suzuki

Once upon a time four guys decided to start a singing group, just for the fun of it, as any four folks have done since time began. Creation likes to sing and harmony is one of those things humans stumbled on. It's a gift from God. This story starts in Milwaukee where 2 fellows found themselves singing in the same choir and became buddies. It was the 1940s. Bob Strasen went off to Japan with the Army and led a male chorus there, but Gene Puerling got a job as a disc jockey back home and formed a couple singing groups on the side. In 1951 he moved to Los Angeles, as did lots of musicians from all over the place. There was work there: TV now, as well as movies and record companies. He needed to share an apartment with somebody, and along came Clark Burroughs, a guy with a sky-high voice, impeccable intonation, and a knack for hilarity that got him a few acting jobs too. Clark was from LA, was schooled and even had sung with the Roger Wagner Chorale. Now he was in a sort of novelty quartet called the Encores that sang on Billy May records. Billy was from Pittsburgh, had been in the bands of and arranged the jazz tunes for Glenn Miller and Charlie Barnet, but now had been doing children's records at Capitol and only lately had been convinced to start a dance band and take it on the road. In the Encores was Bob Morse from Pasadena, who came from a wildly musical family, with brothers who played and arranged for Stan Kenton and Johnny Richards. Morse sang baritone in the Bob Eberle crooner style and could solo well. In 1952 Clark and Puerling, who'd been working in a record store, got the idea to start their own group with Bob Morse. Gene would sing bass and he called Milwaukee, since Strasen was back, and talked him into coming to LA to sing tenor. Clark would handle all the notes above that, which was not yet a sound you'd hear out of a man who wasn't in the Ink Spots. Vocal quartets everywhere have a tradition of choosing catchy silly names for themselves and our guys were no different. These were The Hi-Lo's.

They took any work there was for a group that could sing anything with staggering accuracy. Puerling's arrangements were a challenge for singer and listener alike, always switching parts around so you---and maybe they---weren't sure who was singing melody. They were like a group of musical acrobats, which might have been interesting in itself, but the ideas and harmonies were so close and delicious they soon got heard around LA. The West Coast was a place of adventure and new things at the time. Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck were winning audience with the young, and jazz was in the air. Their first break came when Jerry Fielding heard them. Jerry had met Billy May when they both arranged for Alvino Rey's band after the War, and now was working TV directing bands on Groucho Marx and The Life of Riley. He also was in on the organization of a new small record label called Trend that offered The Hi-Lo's a first session immediately. On April 10, 1953, backed by a huge screaming orchestra under Fielding, they recorded a 45 RPM extended play album of 4 songs: They Didn't Believe Me, Georgia On My Mind, Peg O' My Heart, and My Baby Just Cares For Me. Trend made sure it got to DJs all over the country. The same month Sinatra recorded his first sides with Nelson Riddle.

I was 13, living in Jamestown, New York, and listening every day after school to a disc jockey out of Niagara Falls named Joe Rico. Joe loved vocalists and Stan Kenton, who had gotten a theme song written for him and recorded by the band---over the years at least 3 times I think. This was AM radio and Niagara Falls was just far enough away that I had to run extra antenna wire around the ceiling of my room to bring the station in. (My mother began to worry about my strange devotion to this terrible music.) Almost at once Joe began to play The Hi-Lo's, mixed in with the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sides and any jazz from the West Coast. He was also the kind of DJ who'd decide on a favorite out of an album and play it every day. We wanted to hear more from The Hi-Lo's. Where were they? Trend was in trouble already, having concentrated heroically on the DJs but not distribution. The quartet was picked up in late 1954 by another small label called Starlite, and now came their first full album, The Hi-Lo's Under Glass. Fielding was following Billy May into financial disaster by taking a band on the road himself, so the arranger this time was Frank Comstock who was doing most of the charts for Les Brown and His Band Of Renown, a band that STILL may be for hire even today. Comstock would stay with them another 15 years. They made 4 albums for Starlite, which got air play and much admiration through the music industry, but I couldn't find them downtown nor were they on the juke box. They weren't played at the sock hop either, although other small labels were but the music was very different. I began to find myself no longer in the mainstream.

The Hi-Lo's started showing up on TV. There were variety shows and the group had some great routines. They liked to do Rockin' Chair, changing tempos a couple times and very swinging. This wasn't Satchmo and Teagarden swishin' flies 'round their heads. Steve Allen had them on so much they almost were regulars, like Steve & Edie and Andy Williams. They were on Nat Cole's show. Then they were hired for a 39 week run with Rosemary Clooney. It was 1957 now, and since Rosie recorded for Columbia, so should "her group." The resulting 3 albums, with Comstock arranging, hit the charts. These records I could get---and take to parties. But my friends were not sold...especially the girls. This group was keyed awful high, and although the slow ones danced well---when they weren't changing tempos---this wasn't rock n' roll. If I was sitting around with a bunch of guys, we could dig their albums---and even try to sing along, although it really was impossible, not like the Four Freshmen. And they sang novelty numbers that weren't always cool. My Time Is Your Time? Well, the fact was this group, for better or worse, was not into selling popularity. They sang timeless.

In 1958, my high school graduating year, they released perhaps their masterpiece. A stupid title, The Hi-Lo's And All That Jazz, but the arranger was Marty Paich with a collection of the finest musicians still in LA. Paich liked to use Miles' Birth of the Cool instrumentation, so he had French horn and tuba, with 2 trumpets, valve trombone, alto, tenor, and baritone saxes, and a rhythm section of Clare Fischer, Joe Mondragon, and the master, Mel Lewis, on drums. The trumpet solos were handled by Jack Sheldon, Herb Geller on alto, Bill Perkins on tenor, and Bud Shank playing baritone. There were 4 pieces on the album that had no words at all, but ensemble singing by The Hi-Lo's that seems even today practically impossible to perform. However, to the jazz listener the lines are so full of hooks that you can't get them out of your head---even if it's hard to name which tune is which. Here's one of those mysterious albums that is so great it probably won't sell at all. Isn't it strange? Why do some great albums sell a lot and some not any? What constitutes that phenomenon? This was it. it couldn't get any better. The essence was realized...and Bob Strasen quietly left the group.

Now the story turns to struggle, and it's not pretty. I'll spare you details. It's not as difficult as it was for Rosemary Clooney. And it doesn't shift gears into other pursuits, as it did for Doris Day and Tony Bennett. Columbia demanded hit material from its artists. You know it's funny, we think of the 1950s as very straitlaced and buttoned-down, and the 1960s as wide open and ready for anything. But musically the 1950s were very experimental and groups like The Hi-Lo's could try whatever they liked. Now musicians were having to form their own labels to do what they wanted. Everybody from Frank Sinatra to Stevie Wonder and the Beach Boys, who readily credit The Hi-Lo's for showing them the way, started up their own studios. The Hi-Lo's stuck with Columbia for another couple of years, but the records became painful. Strasen's replacement, Don Shelton, was not a bad singer and could do the parts...but the arrangements were aimed at something simpler now. Sometimes they sounded like they were imitating the Freshmen, targeting an audience that would cuddle up with the music. It didn't work, and the singles were atrocious. They even tried Mitch Miller singalong---honkytonk piano and all. It was over in 1964.

Let it be said The Hi-Lo's maintained a freshness and good humor through it all. There were no nervous breakdowns or drugs that I ever heard about. The men remained professional and simply found other work as they could. Burroughs never had any trouble...and you'd still see him on TV or notice his name in the best vocal groups and choruses. Nobody could cut him or do what he could do. Gene Puerling settled for a life of arranging, running a recording group called Singers Unlimited for a while. Those records are collectors items for anyone interested in choral singing. American choruses through this period had not been spectacular. We sing hymns over here. There were the Voices of Walter Schuman, Norman Luboff, the Ray Charles Singers (not THAT Ray Charles) and probably a couple other mood music choirs I'm forgetting. Ray Conniff probably did for Columbia what they were asking The Hi-Lo's to do. But our ability to sing classical music was unheralded, even with Roger Wagner.

A quiet revolution was beginning to happen though. From underneath and within, music education in the 1970s and 1980s was bringing forth choral directors and singers. People that were driven out of the recording industry found themselves teaching classes in small town schools. Some started choirs and bands after hours and maybe recorded something locally. Dale Warland started a choir up north and even commissioned compositions, a choir so good it almost was able to survive up to even this period of our cultural life. Americans learned to sing with the best in the world. No one needed to make excuses about what a young and inexperienced country we were...as far as art was concerned. And if any of the new choirs wanted an arrangement of one of those great American ballads from the 1930s, the directors remembered the name Gene Puerling and called him up. A choir named Chanticleer formed a few years back, I think in the Southwest somewhere. It's a male choir that sings chants and very old music, stuff from Mexico nobody's heard before and things like that, and essentially they specialize in the same vocal range as The Hi-Lo's did. They made an album called Lost In The Stars, of romantic American songs, and if you have it you'll see Puerling arranged some. I guess if we don't have a lot of gold records, we still can talk about influence.

The Hi-Lo's reformed briefly...a couple of times. Once was to record an album for Pausa in 1979 called The Hi-Lo's! Back Again! Here the huge and wailing band is that of Canadian Rob McConnell---which is another story of someone brilliant and wonderful who tried so hard. About half the record is material you may remember from earlier days, but the other half is new, including an arrangment of When Sunny Gets Blue that brings me to my knees every time. They got together once more in the early 1980s I think with the McConnell band to do one of the festivals in California. Everytime I've heard them they sound perfect. They weren't really ahead of their time. Time won't ever catch up. Bing Crosby said, "These guys are so good they even whisper in harmony." The Hi-Lo's celebrated and carried forward a tradition in American popular music, really transferring it as a group into jazz for the first time. Others were coming along with the same ideas, but nobody did it with such precision and artistry. They set new benchmarks that people who know about them still are striving for. CD reissues of The Hi-Lo's are not easy to find, and if you go to a site like All Music Guide you won't see them well or adequately reviewed. www.thehi-los.com/ has a tremendous amount of information (that might have been good if I'd read before I wrote this) plus downloads and a juke box so you can hear them. I also learn unfortunately that both Morse and Strasen have passed away. Maybe this little essay of gratitude and admiration will get you to listen...and better yet start to sing.

5 comments:

Dianne said...

Clare Fischer and the Hi-Lo's:

Early on in his career (1958, Richard's high school graduating year, by jazzoLOG's reckoning, above,) Clare Fischer worked with the Hi-Lo's for four years or so as a pianist and an arranger.

Some two decades later, I discovered him on stage in the early 80s, in Hollywood, California, I had never heard of Clare Fischer before and was admonished at the time by my musician companions that I was privileged to see one of jazz's greatest artists up close. After the concert, my friends introduced me to him and I actually shook his hand and said, "Pleased to meet you." Sometimes it's better if we are innocent in the face of greatness.

jazzolog said...

Fischer's uneven output over the years may be cause for his obscurity. His first recordings for a major label were well received, but then he kind of bossa nova'd out of the spotlight.

jazzolog said...

I've been meaning to update this article since I posted it over at thehi-los.com. What I learned there was very polite people, who know a heck of a lot more than I do, are quick to set my record straight, center on the turntable, and press some of the warps out. Here's a wonderful comment anyone would be happy to get from a contributor known as stringbean~~~

"Nice piece on the group. If I may here's my two cents---from someone who has done a fair amount of research on the Hi-Lo's, including interviewing Gene and trading lots of emails with Clare Fischer, Dave Gold (co-founder of Gold Star Studios, where the Hi-Lo's did all of their Starlite LP's and possibly some Columbia things), and other musical notables who were active in the LA music scene during the 1950s and 60s.

"First, let me say that it’s difficult to find much written/photo/video material on the guys (suffice to say, Bobby has done a great job putting this site together). Yes the Hi-Lo’s did do some 30-odd Rosie shows but their 'real' music spots on each show lasted a mere 2-3 minutes. Much of the time they wore silly hats, jumped around in skits and sang background for assorted guests. Some, admittedly, were very good, like Matt Dennis. They did a couple of Spike Jones shows, a Nat Cole show, and a Sinatra appearance in late 1959, just a few months after Don Shelton joined. There is a rumor that they appeared on one of Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Casual shows or even one of the early Playboy After Dark syndicated shows, but I’ve never been able to corroborate that info. They do appear in the movie Calypso Heatwave where they sing two songs from the 'Suddenly' LP. There are also very brief appearances in a couple of other early 1960 movies. Unfortunately there seems to be very little in the way of concert reviews---whether it’s performances during their salads days from 1953-1963, or from the so-called retro days of the 1980s and early 1990s.

"In your piece, I couldn't tell if you meant that Frank Comstock was 'with' the Hi-Lo’s for 15 years or Les Brown’s band for fifteen years. If you meant the former, Frank’s tenure as orchestral arranger for the Lo’s lasted only from 1955 ('Listen') to 1958 (Love Nest)---a total of eight recordings. Sadly he never did another recording with the group after ‘Nest. If you meant that Comstock was with Brown for fifteen years then I misunderstood.

"Also, in the summer 1959, Bob Strasen didn’t 'quietly leave' the quartet. He was fired, and until this day no one knows, or will say, exactly why. There are theories about Stras having voice problems (however, Clare Fischer says he is sure that Stras wasn’t having throat issues), or that from a vocal point of view he was the weak link in the group. But if it’s the later, then why was Stras a member for NINE records and countless live appearances from 1953 to 1959? Even Comstock says although he didn’t know “the Bob’s” or Clark well, that during the recording sessions he worked on, the four singers were very professional and obviously well rehearsed.

"I think you gave Don Shelton feint praise in your piece. Gene, Morse, and Clark were all solid sight-readers, and right on pitch---as were most of the top studio vocalists at that time (Marnie Nixon, Randy Van Horne’s crew, etc). However, as a seasoned LA musician and studio contractor who was active in LA during the 1950s & 60s told me, Don was simply bionic (musically speaking). He could literally sight-sing anything nearly perfectly the first time. Combine that in-tune voice with frightening range, great projection, very little vibrato, and a bit of swing to his delivery, and you have an incredible musician---which all of the members of the group agreed upon.

"Lastly, you mentioned that after their second MPS LP in the early 1980s the group sort of faded (my word) away. Actually their so-called rebirth happened as follows. In 1978, fourteen years after they last sang together, Gene received a call from Jimmy Lyons, the founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Lyons asked if the group could get together for a reunion as a favor to him. They rehearsed, it sounded great, and they subsequently rocked Monterey that year. At the time Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, the owner of MPS, was recording Singers Unlimited and of course knew and loved the Hi-Lo’s. He asked Gene about recording and the group did 'Back Again' with Rob McConnell’s band. They did several more 'reunions' at Monterey (plus a few other selected concerts) before they did their second MPS LP 'Now', which was to be their last recording. However, in the mid-1980s the group decided to begin ramping up the number of appearances they would do and this continued right through 1992 when they did their last concert at a benefit for the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs, CA. Four years later, in 1996, when the Clinic asked the group to do another concert, the Hi-Lo’s came out of retirement to do it one more time.

"Thanks for sharing your piece with all of us. I hope my two cents didn’t wear out my welcome.

‘Bean"
http://www.thehi-los.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=446

As I replied, the most confounding part of Bean's comment concerns my error about Frank Comstock's arranging tenure. I immediately scoured the Net looking for any indication that I knew what I was talking about, but 15 years just ain't so. I did find a fascinating 3 1/2 hour interview with Frank Comstock where it says, "From 1943 through 2002, Comstock was responsible for about 90% of Brown's book." Whew! But of more interest to us, there are extensive references to his work for the Hi-Lo's, especially since neither Frank nor Puerling had formal musical training. Apparently Gene wrote the guys' parts on 4 individual lines, and left it to the arranger to figure out what chords would work well. Comstock doesn't complain about the difficulty at all, praising Puerling as the greatest vocal arranger he ever heard. The interview structure is a bit complicated but if you're interested, take a look~~~
http://salticid.nmc.csulb.edu/cgi-bin/WebObjects/OralAural.woa/wa/interview?ww=893&wh=460&pt=jaws&bi=1&prj=ajazz002&col=a1004&ser=nwr001

jazzolog said...

I've just heard from my online friend, bassist Phil Schroeder, that Gene Puerling died on Tuesday. So far I've seen no reference to his passing at Google News or other jazz forums. The brief reference Wikipedia has for him does verify it.

Gene's influence went far beyond his work with---and really management of---The Hi-Lo's...and even jazz group singing. His formation of Singers Unlimited moved him more into a pop setting, without losing for a moment his impeccable taste (usually) and astonishing harmonic sensibility. The group's sound was choral, and so it is not surprising that a whole new generation of singers became attracted. And best of all, for those of us in an inexplicably small audience of devotees, a new form of choral jazz began to spread. Dave Lambert had experimented earlier, but it was Gene Puerling who risked actually maintaining a larger group like this.

He continued to arrange for choirs the rest of his life, perhaps most notably for Chanticleer, whose very sound and range surely was influenced by The Hi-Lo's. You can find a Puerling chart or 2 of all of Chanticleer's albums that have a Great American Songbook theme. He contributed settings of Silent Night and The Christmas Song for last year's Let It Snow release.

jazzolog said...

I received this note from Michele Weir last evening~~~

Hi Richard, thanks, and yes, the word is spreading fast. Gene was so important to us all. FYI, here’s an email sent to a few folks from Clark Burroughs this morning:

Don Shelton phoned me last night with the news.



My old friend, most admired mentor and lifelong near-brother passed into the next existence night before last.

I wish with all my being that I could stand next to him one more time. There were times when we were one voice, somehow larger than our two voices. His genius informed my entire life. His harmonies are embedded in my bones, and his humor followed me through more than six decades. I'll always love him.


Clark Burroughs

__________________________________________
Michele Weir
Visit the MichMusic Store (arrangements, books, and CDs):
http://www.micheleweir.com (or http://www.michmusic.com)